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‘Many of our veterans are suffering in silence’

HERStory program addresses health needs of female military members

War can haunt many soldiers long after they come home – loud sounds, nightmares and the grief of friends lost in the battle.

Those experiences and feelings can lead to substance use, addiction, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, sadly, suicide at times.

“I came home with PTSD, depression and anxiety. Many of our veterans are suffering in silence,” said retired U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Constance Cottan, guest speaker at the HERStory program to address the mental and physical health needs of female veterans last month in Willingboro.

Cottan started off her speech to the more than 60 people who filled the room in the Boro Epicenter on Beverly-Rancocas Road with a moment of silence “for the women veterans who are no longer with us.”

The author of “On the Battlefield” – a 2019 book that addresses how a woman returning home affects the family – Cottan was a participant in a recent study conducted by Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

The report was released three weeks ago, showing that “suicide rates are higher and have risen among women veterans. We need to take care of women veterans’ needs.”

“I have seen the data,” said State Sen. Troy Singleton, who put together the program with help from his staff. “It is more difficult for our women in the military and the challenges they face when they come home. I am thrilled we are here today to have this conversation.”

“Burlington County is home to thousands and thousands of veterans. We owe a debt to all of you who have worn a uniform,” noted County Commissioner Dan O’Connell, who added that Burlington County Veterans Services has helped 2,700 veterans receive a total of $15 million in compensation benefits.

“You served. You matter,” Cottan told the more than 40 female veterans in the HERStory audience. “The VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) has made these benefits available. Get the benefits that you deserve, and reach out to your peers.”

Cottan served from 1998 to 2004, participating in Desert Shield, Desert Storm and the first Iraq war. She missed being with her family, including her husband Stacey. It was especially difficult when her oldest son Markus was an infant.

“It was hard being away from my son,” she recalled, adding that Markus is now 25 and a graduate of Lincoln University. Their son Matthue, 24, graduated from Yale University in 2023.

Cottan urged everyone to go to womensveterans.org or call (215) 715-9775 if they need help.

Jennifer E. Myers, public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was at one of the support tables in the back of the room. She said the VA has clinics in Marlton and Washington Township where veterans can receive information and medical care.

A retired U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant who served for 20 years and was deployed in Kuwait and Qatar, Myers noted that the two main reasons women veterans get PTSD are being in combat or suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

The recent DAV study showed a marked increase of the number of MST-related PTSD claims filed in recent years, and a VA’s Office of the Inspector General in 2018 found that “approximately 12,000 MST-related claims were filed with and completed by the Veterans Benefits Administration in the three preceding years.”

The VA website describes Military Sexual trauma (MST) as sexual assault or threatening sexual harassment experienced during military service. Veterans of all genders and from all types of backgrounds have experienced it.

“If you’re having difficulties related to your experience of MST, we’re here to support you in whatever way will help you best,” Myers explained. “We can help you learn more about how MST affects people. We can provide treatment that helps you cope with how the experience of MST is impacting your life. Or if you’d prefer, we can provide treatment that involves discussing your experiences in more depth.

“We help any veterans anywhere,” she added. “Today’s program helps make sure that veterans are aware of the resources available to them.”

The moderator of HERStory – which included a panel discussion – was Willingboro Councilwoman Dr. Tiffani Worthy.

“We are here to address the needs of female veterans. It is wonderful to see our elected officials and all the resource tables,” said Worthy, who graduated as an officer from West Point and is a retired veteran.

Panelist Dr. Andrea M. Peters also graduated from West Point, and still serves as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. The other panelists were guest speaker Cottan; Kaitlyn Hewitt, pet therapy coordinator for Virtua Hospital and a retired U.S. Navy veteran; and Christine Cattani of Deborah Hospital.

The HERStory program, said its presenters, was just the beginning of a conversation that needs to continue.

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