SPOKANE, Wash. – Cindy Fitzgerald is drawn to stories about women in the middle of major life transitions.
 
“I’m interested in, for example, what happens to women when they have a child,” said the assistant professor of nursing at Washington State University Spokane. “Then, what happens to women when that child starts school?”
 
The researcher and longtime nurse is studying a relatively new type of transition: how do female soldiers who served in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan adjust to life back in the U.S.? The answer: sometimes not too well.
 
More health problems
Fitzgerald has interviewed 39 female veterans during the last two years; 24 served in dangerous roles “outside the wire.”
“A lot of women I’ve talked to wonder if they’re crazy or normal,” she said.
 
Fitzgerald is learning that women who return from overseas deployments have a variety of health problems that, while not unique, occur in greater numbers among their group: traumatic brain injuries, depression, menstrual irregularities, difficulty conceiving children and gastrointestinal distress.
 
Among her other findings: “I haven’t run into as much substance abuse and addictive behavior as I thought I would,” she said. “Most of the women I’ve met have retained their military discipline about their body habits and their diets.”
 
New research area
She said the health-related facts are interesting. But she’s more interested in the stories behind the statistics, and she’s finding people who want to talk.
 
“I haven’t had to look for women yet,” since word has spread about her research, she said. “I think they know they have an important story and I think they want to tell it to someone who gets it, someone who will listen” – like a nurse.
 
Other than a small group from the U.S. Veterans’ Administration, few researchers in the country are paying attention to returning female veterans, Fitzgerald said.
 
That’s one reason WSU Spokane awarded her a $3,750 Faculty Seed Grant to help her start her research.
 
‘At risk of being lost’
“Her focus on women with brain injuries is less written about, but it’s promising and important,” said Dennis Dyck, WSU Spokane vice chancellor of research. “Her approach is unique and in-depth. She’s going out of her way to identify issues and problems.”
 
Now, Fitzgerald is looking for other grants to continue her work. She would love to follow some of these women for a longer period of time.
“I would love to work in a team to explore other aspects of these women to give a fuller understanding of them,” she said. “There’s so much we don’t know about what we don’t know.
 
“I think if this work is well done, it can help make a lot of things clearer and I’d like to be part of that,” she said.
 
One of the problems, Fitzgerald said, is identifying the women who need help.
 
“These women who come back, they look like Debbie next door, they go to college,” she said. “You can turn on the TV every night and hear a story about veterans, but you just don’t hear the focus on this population that is really at risk of being lost.”