Women Exposed to Combat Trauma as Resilient as Men:
TUESDAY, June 7 (HealthDay News) -- 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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