VA Study Uncovers New Findings on Posttraumatic Stress in War Vets

New research finds that risk factors for posttraumatic stress symptomatology in Iraq and Afghanistan vets are similar to those seen in Vietnam vets.

Risk factors for posttraumatic stress symptomatology (PTSS) in soldiers who were stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq were found to be similar to those observed in Vietnam Veterans, according to new research from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Boston.

The findings, which are published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, suggest that there may be generalized mechanisms and pathways common to different Veteran populations through which risk factors contribute to PTSS.

“This research underscores the vital importance of VA’s outreach to Veterans, and their families, in helping them cope with posttraumatic stress,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in a statement.

Participants included a national sample of 579 (333 female and 246 male) Iraq and Afghanistan veterans exposed to combat operations who had returned from deployment in the 12 months prior to the study. Using data from mailed surveys, the researchers assessed several risk factors previously documented among Vietnam veterans which were established as predictors of posttraumatic stress symptomatology. Examples include exposure to combat, predeployment stress exposure, dysfunctional family during childhood, lack of post-deployment emotional support from family and friends, and post-deployment stress exposure.

One key finding was that veterans who are women demonstrated new risk factors that were not seen in the Vietnam era, including exposure to combat and perceived threat. The authors ascribed the finding to the significantly different experiences of female veterans in the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

In Vietnam, women were primarily nurses or clerical staff. In contrast, the roles of women veteran in Afghanistan and Iraq have substantially expanded, with much higher levels of exposure to combat. Because of this, women who are veterans of more recent wars may have more in common with their male contemporaries, in relation to PTSS risk, than with their female counterparts from the Vietnam era. However, in terms of postdeployment readjustment, family relationships during deployment appeared to play a more prominent role in female versus male veterans.

“Our findings highlight the impact and role of family disruptions in increasing the risk for posttraumatic stress symptomatology, particularly for female service members,” said lead author Dawne Vogt, PhD, of the VA Boston Healthcare System. “It is particularly noteworthy that women who experienced relationship problems during deployment, also reported less postdeployment social support.”

Veterans who believe they are experiencing symptoms of PTSS or PTSD may call the crisis hotline number at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and then push 1 on their telephone keypad to reach trained VA mental health professionals, who offer assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.