Women veterans really began coming to the Veterans Administration (VA) with combat-type physical and mental issues after the first Gulf War.
A generation of women who served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991 were right beside the men when they were all were exposed to multiple environmental and chemical toxins.
This led to Gulf War Illness, the neurological condition that is accompanied by a large number of debilitating symptoms from chronic fatigue syndrome to skin conditions to headaches to gastrointestinal problems and much more.
For many women who served in Operation Desert Storm, the war never ended.
“It’s the wounds you can’t see that are sometimes the worst because people think we are fine and we’re not,” said Denise Nichols, an Air Force nurse and Operation Desert Storm veteran.
After she returned home, Nichols became a dedicated advocate for herself and her colleagues who were in the Gulf region in 1990-1991.
“It took a long time for VA to even admit that anything that was happening to us was anything other than psychological,” said Nichols.
But she and many others noted that studies have now decisively settled that argument.
Carol Williams, a Navy corpsman and also a veteran of the Gulf War, is also suffering from Gulf War Illness.
She is 100 percent disabled and suffers from chronic, acute pain, along with other physical and mental issues.
When she first left active duty and began reporting her symptoms to the VA, “They kept telling me the pain was in my mind. A doctor put that in my medical record,” she told Healthline.
Williams remains proud of her service, but she is deeply saddened by the way she and her fellow Gulf War veterans have been treated.
In 2013, when Williams checked into a VA hospital for six weeks of physical therapy, she was placed in a room that was not wheelchair accessible and told to use the same shower as the guys.
“The shower was so horrible, so dirty, there were roaches,” she said. “I took a bunch of pictures. They kept moving me all over the place. They didn’t have anywhere to put me. I literally was so traumatized, when I came home I started crying and couldn't stop.”
Williams said that when veterans suffer mistreatment at VA hospitals and clinics, “The women speak up, but many of the men are afraid to because the people at VA can put something in our record that affects our disability. A lot of guys are scared their disability will be taken away and they will be homeless. Women are more outspoken; I guess because we have no choice. We were bullied in the military, too, and we're not gonna take it in civilian life.”
Nichols, Williams, and other female Gulf War veterans are chronicled in the documentary “Women at War: Forgotten Veterans of Desert Storm,” a film written and directed by Christie Davis, that looks at women soldiers’ fight with the VA for proper treatment and benefits for their Gulf War illnesses.