Yale-Led Study to Examine Post-Combat Trauma Among Women Veterans

Returning Servicemen and women

By Michael Tsang

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—A new nationwide study on the gender difference of how female and male military combat veterans readjust to civilian life is underway. The study was made possible by a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and represents one of the first empirical studies of its kind.

This nationwide investigation is headed by Rani Desai, a Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Care (MIRECC) investigator at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, who is also associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and director of the Women and Trauma research core of Women’s Health Research at Yale.

The study will be a collaboration that includes researchers from the VA, Women’s Health at Yale, and the University of Connecticut.

Of the 2 million Americans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, approximately 12 percent or 240,000 have been women. This is an unprecedented number and represents the largest cadre of U.S. military women exposed to combat to date. This does not include approximately 40,000 who serve as contractor personnel—many of whom are women. The American Legion estimates the number of women active in duty will increase to 20-25percent in the new millennium.

California and Texas comprise the largest percentage (approximately 25 percent) of troops that have served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Although women veterans face the same, or many of the same transition issues as their male counterparts, studies indicate that they also face specific issues related to their gender.

One of the biggest difficulties is the culture change back to civilian life. They feel lost because they think that others around them do not have the same experiences. Women veterans also find the lack of respect and recognition for their military service, especially their combat experience, as their primary transition challenge.

And while male veterans may traditionally have been allotted down time to readjust to civilian life, women veterans are often expected to resume their roles as mothers or primary caregivers immediately. Women veterans are also twice as likely as male veterans to have reported mental health problems.

The study at Yale will for the first time investigate the speculation that women veterans are more susceptible than men to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The presupposition is that women on average enter military service having had more civilian trauma than men and as a result of military sexual trauma (MST), more than male veterans.

An article on an award-winning blog called “Healing Combat Trauma” indicates that of the 18 veterans who commit suicide every day, women veteran suicide is two to three times higher than nonveteran women.

MST affected roughly the same number of men and women, approximately 60,000 each, between 2002 and 2008, despite their disproportional numbers in service. The blog also cites a VA report that the prevalence of MST among Gulf and Afghanistan veterans is 15.1 percent among females, but anecdotally the figures are much, much higher, typically underreported because of shame and fear of reprisal. 

A 2006 report by the Journal of General Internal Medicine indicated that 41 percent of veteran women had experienced MST, and MST can lead to PTSD. Among Gulf War veterans, for example, women who suffered MST had a 5 times higher risk of suffering from PTSD.

A study out of the VA North Texas Healthcare System based on 270 veteran women found that compared with those without a history of sexual assaults, women veterans were nine times more likely to have PTSD if they had a history of military sexual assault, seven times more likely if they had childhood sexual assault histories, and five times more likely if they had civilian sexual assault histories.

The Pentagon in 2008 commissioned an estimated $300 million in research funding for a full-scale assessment of PTSD. The military has since embraced a slew of alternative treatment options, including pet therapy, acupuncture, and yoga. Many of these integrated treatments have been used and there have been noted successes.

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