Women’s Mental Health

Women in the U.S. Military

Timeline of Women in the U.S. Military

  • 1778: Molly Pitcher assumed her injured husband’s spot on the cannon (Revolutionary War)
  • 1901: Women started serving officially on active duty in the U.S. Army
  • 1909: Women started serving in the U.S. Navy
  • 1914-1918 (WWI) & 1939-1945 (WWII): Increasing numbers of women, primarily as nurses, secretarial and communications support personnel
  • 1994: Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule opened jobs except for direct ground combat elements to women
  • After 2001 (Post 9/11): >300,000 women deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom
  • 2013: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lifted the last remaining ban on women’s participation in combat
  • 2016: All military jobs opened to females

Women have served in the U.S. military throughout United States history. Since the Revolutionary War, more than 2.5 million women have served [ Reference 1 ] They comprise 15 percent of active-duty service members and fill 10 percent of all positions among deployed forces in recent conflicts. [ Reference 2 ] In addition, about 190,000 women serve in the National Guard and reserves.[ Reference 3 ]

Female service members play an increasingly broad and pivotal role in U.S. military operations. Their military experiences and responses to those experiences may be distinct from those of their male counterparts, and may influence female service members’ mental health status and needs[ Reference 4 ] Likewise, female veterans are among the fastest-growing population of new VA service users.

Women in Combat Symposium

In 2014, the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs hosted the Women in Combat Symposium. More than 90 policy makers, researchers and service members from across DoD examined women-in-combat issues related to health, operational, environmental, community and cultural factors. Their contributions culminated in a January 2016 special supplement issue of “Military Medicine” featuring topics related to women’s health and wellness including nutrition, physical fitness, reproductive health, psychological health and substance use.

Way Forward: Women’s Mental Health Work Group

In September 2016, the DoD Women’s Mental Health Work Group was established to address the mental health and substance use needs of female service members and to recommend actions to overcome identified disparities and barriers to care. The work group, led by PHCoE in collaboration with the Health Affairs Women’s Health Issues Work Group, the military services, Veterans Affairs and other stakeholders, is responsible for coordinating five functional areas:

  1. Bi-annual systematic literature review of peer-reviewed research on gender-specific mental health and substance use prevalence, treatment and prevention
  2. Annual comprehensive review of relevant DoD and service-specific policies
  3. Knowledge management of evidence-based treatment interventions, programs, services, prevention and surveillance for female service members
  4. Analysis of research gaps in the provision of mental health and substance use care for female service members
  5. Recommendations to ensure ongoing surveillance, program evaluation and research; and to identify disparities, specific needs and opportunities for improving both treatment and preventative services


  1. Ritchie, E. C., & In Naclerio, A. L. (2015). Women at war. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  2. Manning L. (2013). Women in the Military: Where They Stand. 8th ed. Washington, DC: Women’s Research & Education Institute.

  3. Defense Manpower Data Center, Statistical Information Analysis Division (as of July, 2011).

  4. Bean-Mayberry, B., Batuman, F., Huang, C., Goldzweig, C. L., Washington, D. L., Yano, E. M., … Shekelle, P. G. (2010). Systematic review of women Veterans’ health research 2004–2008 (VA-ESP Project #05-226). Retrieved from U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Health Services Research and Development Service website: http://www.hsrd.research.va.gov/publications/esp/women-vets.cfm