Coping is Not Created Equal: A Woman’s Military Experience

Human beings have always been resilient creatures. Whether we realize it or not, we possess the ability to adapt to various situations and survive them, often without even noticing how we managed it. Unfortunately, that does not always mean that the ways we adapt and what our coping mechanisms are can be healthy or particularly beneficial to us, whether in a short-term situation or in the long run. Avoidant coping mechanisms (or ones that involve the person basically withdrawing into themselves) can be especially harmful for various reasons, so figuring out why some may choose them is important.

How to cope with personal trauma was the theme of “Finding Resilience and Making Change in the Military,” a recent Brainwave series program at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.

The program paired Anuradha Bhagwati, an Ivy League educated Marine Corps veteran, with Jennifer Chan, Ph.D., a pharmacologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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Bhagwati (left) and Chan (right). Photo: Rubin Museum

Bhagwati began by explaining her reasons for joining the Marines. Having grown up surrounded by classmates who were primarily white and/or Jewish, she did not feel like she truly belonged anywhere, being Indian and an only child. “The Marine Corps felt, in part, like belonging to something larger than me,” she said.

Once a Marine, Bhagwati quickly learned to push through all of her feelings, particularly as she rose in rank and became an officer. She explained that vulnerability or any expression of emotion was discouraged as a woman in the Marines, the branch that is least diverse of the Armed Forces. This became especially apparent to her when she filed a sexual harassment claim against a junior officer, in part because showing any emotions during that time would have caused her to be taken less seriously.

Cisgender females, when growing up, are pushed to develop more relationship skills, where cisgender males are really pushed more towards independence,” said Chan, adding that in and of itself causes a huge disconnect and is only magnified when it comes to such a hypermasculine environment such as the Marine Corps. She explained that in these situations, it is important to have a sense of community and adaptive coping mechanisms, which Bhagwati was deprived of for various reasons.

According to a report released by the Veteran’s Association last year, the suicide rate for veterans continues to increase, with the average number of veteran and active-duty soldier suicides remaining at 20 per day. Currently, the military is trying to implement mindfulness training to potentially help prevent or lessen the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, of which Bhagwati is skeptical of. “At the very least, I’m uncomfortable with the mixing of [mindfulness and the military],” she said, citing the possibility of these skills being used to make soldiers more effective at “target acquisition,” which, explained Bhagwati, means killing the assigned target in a mission.

After leaving the Marines, Bhagwati began teaching yoga and meditation to veterans which she had previously discovered was personally beneficial for her. “For me it was very much a healing activity, being in a room with mostly male veterans and encouraging vulnerability,” she said. She has been teaching both for about ten years now, and also credits developing female friendships after leaving the Marines with helping her learn to process and cope with the trauma that she faced. She advises other veterans to find out what adaptive coping mechanisms work for them and to utilize those strategies.

This year’s Brainwave series is focused on power. Check the schedule for more events occurring through May. For more on suicide in the military and how researchers are using technology to combat the rising rates, read our news story, “Predicting Suicides–Beyond STARRS.”

– Megan Messana

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