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Ex-Marine continues to shed light on reality of eating disorders

February 10, 2017
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Theresa Larson wrote Warrior for anyone struggling with an addiction, but has learned since her memoir's release last April that the book also has had an impact in the military environment she once inhabited. For example, she discovered that some ship captains have shared the story of her battle with an eating disorder and a core perfectionism.

She also has heard evidence that awareness of eating disorders in the military is improving, and she believes this trend will continue.

“I've had many service members reach out to me, who are getting help in the military,” says Larson, a San Diego-based physical therapist and former Marine first lieutenant who was voluntarily evacuated from combat and medically discharged because of her struggle with bulimia. “At least they are not being kicked out right away, at least on the enlisted side.” However, “I have not come across an officer coming forward.”

Warrior, published by HarperOne, chronicles the trials and triumphs of a young woman who became a star college and professional softball player and later would lead a combat platoon in the Middle East. Larson had struggled with disordered eating before enlisting, and she emphasizes that she in no way faults the Marine Corps for what unfolded in her life. She says that as a young Marine leader she didn't know how to cope with stresses, adding as an aside, “Not many do.”

“The mental fitness matters almost more than the physical readiness,” says Larson.

General lack of data

There has not been a high volume of research on the prevalence of eating disorders in the military, although one survey of 3,000 military women reported that more than half of respondents appeared to be affected. “The Marine Corps had the highest rate,” says Larson, possibly because of its comparatively demanding physical standard for members.

Larson, who was discharged in 2007 after around four years of service (she was in her mid-20s at the time), says she first hid her illness during her time in the Corps, thinking in part that she couldn't let something like that derail her from her service.

“I didn't take my disorder seriously,” says Larson, who has spoken about eating disorders for the National Eating Disorders Association. “I was more fearful of failing in the Marines than I was of my own issues.”

Twelve weeks of cognitively focused outpatient treatment post-discharge helped to place Larson on a healthier path, she says.

She is proud that her book has helped to paint an accurate and frank picture of what an eating disorder looks like, as well as to shatter some stereotypes. She says, for example, that most people associate eating disorders in athletics with sports such as swimming and gymnastics, not softball.

“I was writing for anyone struggling with an addiction,” says Larson, adding, “I know that I can make more of a difference on the outside [of the military] than in.”