Male and female military personnel exposed to combat zone trauma tend to experience similar mental health problems and recover at the same rate, a new study reveals.
The finding — the first to examine the role of gender on combat-linked stress after deployment — was based on a survey completed by American men and women deployed between October 2007 and July 2008 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The study had two major findings, according to lead author Dawne S. Vogt, an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. “One is that more women than ever before are experiencing combat. So although men continue to experience it at slightly higher rates, the difference in exposure is relatively small.”
“The other one is that this suggests that women may be just as resilient as men in the year following return from deployment,” Vogt said. “Which is a novel finding, because the broader trauma literature has historically found that women are more vulnerable to trauma exposure. But in this study you’re not seeing that.”
Vogt and her colleagues present their findings in a recent online issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
The authors noted that the Pentagon’s current official policy bars women from direct participation in ground combat, although they are nonetheless deployed in numerous risky combat situations.
That official ban has been the subject of much recent debate, despite the fact that according to the Department of Defense, more than 750 women have been killed or wounded in action in either the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as of 2009.
Against that backdrop, the study authors polled a random sample of 595 veterans of those wars through the Defense Manpower Data Center. The group was comprised of 340 women and 252 men, all of whom had returned from their respective war zone within the year leading up to the survey.
The male soldiers were more likely to be married and have children, while the women were three years younger on average, and more likely to be from a minority group. Half of the survey participants were “active duty,” a quarter were part of the National Guard, and another quarter were part of the Reserve Forces.
Each soldier was asked whether or not he or she had fired a weapon, been shot at, and/or been witness to combat death or injuries. Post-battle experiences were also tallied, in terms of the handling or observing of human remains and contact with prisoners.
In addition, the survey explored the degree to which each soldier feared for his or her safety and well-being, along with the pressures and difficulties of day-to-day living in a combat zone. Participants were also asked to discuss their pre-deployment exposure to trauma and their exposure to sexual harassment on duty.
All the responses were then compared to each soldier’s post-deployment history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse, and overall mental health functioning.
Vogt and her team first noted that while the male soldiers were exposed to slightly more combat and post-battle trauma, the traumatic nature of the group’s combat experience was fairly similar across gender lines. Women were found to have experienced a greater degree of pre-deployment stress, as well as a greater incidence of sexual harassment while deployed.
In terms of post-deployment experience, male and female soldiers appeared to experience about the same degree of PTSD and depression in the year post-deployment. Mental health functioning was also comparable among male and female veterans, although substance abuse was more common among the men.
The authors concluded that male and female soldiers appear to be equally resilient to the stress and trauma of combat, in least in the immediate months following battle.
“One implication is I think people need to realize that women are experiencing combat too, even though at slightly lower levels,” noted Vogt, who is also a researcher at the National Center for PTSD at the VA Boston Healthcare System. “And therefore that needs to be taken into consideration when they come home, in the context of caring for them in the health care setting.”
“And the other implication,” she said, “is that these findings are particularly relevant given the recent call for the military to reverse its long-standing policy barring women from ground combat.”
For his part, Keith A. Young, vice chair for research in the department of psychiatry at Texas A&M Health Science Center in College Station, Texas, said the current insights are what he would expect.
“I’m not so surprised that military women experience similar mental health problems as men,” said Young, who is also the Neuroimaging and Genetics core leader for the VA Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans in Waco, Texas.
“There is certainly the idea that has been out there that women are more susceptible to PTSD,” Young said. “But I think a lot of the research wasn’t very well controlled, and, in fact, in most of the animal work that has been done, it’s the male animal that has been most susceptible to stress and PTSD. The female animals have actually proven to be more resilient.”
Young cautioned, however, that the principle factor driving the current female combat ban may have less to do with concerns over vulnerability to combat trauma and more to do with the risk of abuse that women prisoners of war might face. In that light, he suggested that the current findings would not necessarily alter the current ban debate.
“Nevertheless, I think this finding will generally help women who are interested in a military career,” he added. “It will help justify their ability to pursue that type of career and life.”
Vogt’s study was partially funded by a Department of Veterans Affairs Health Sciences Research and Development Service grant and the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
For more on combat and PTSD, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.