Regardless of which war or conflict you look at, high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans have been found. Throughout history, people have recognized that exposure to combat situations can negatively impact the mental health of those involved in these situations.
In fact, the diagnosis of PTSD historically originates from observations of the effect of combat on soldiers. The grouping of symptoms that we now refer to as PTSD has been described in the past as “combat fatigue,” “shell shock,” or “war neurosis.”
For this reason, researchers have been particularly interested in examining the extent to which PTSD occurs among veterans. Rates of PTSD in Vietnam veterans, Persian Gulf War veterans, and Iraq War veterans are provided below.
PTSD in Vietnam Veterans
The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) was conducted by the U.S. government following a congressional mandate in 1983 to better understand the psychological effect of being in the Vietnam War. Among Vietnam veterans, approximately 15 percent of men and 9 percent of women were found to have PTSD at the time of the study. The incidence over a lifetime following involvement in a war, however, is much greater. Approximately 30 percent of men and 27 percent of women had PTSD at some point in their life following Vietnam.
These rates of PTSD in Vietnam veterans were much higher than those found among non-Vietnam veterans and civilians. The rates are alarming since they indicate that at the time of the study, there were about 479,000 cases of PTSD and one million lifetime PTSD cases as a result of the Vietnam War.
PTSD in Persian Gulf War Veterans
Although the Persian Gulf War was brief, its impact was no less traumatic than other wars. From the time the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991 to now, veterans have reported a number of physical and mental health problems.
Studies examining the mental health of Persian Gulf War veterans have found that rates of PTSD stemming from the war range anywhere from nine percent to approximately 24 percent. These rates are higher than what has been found among veterans not deployed to the Persian Gulf.
PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan Conflict Veterans
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are ongoing. That’s why the full the impact the war has had on the mental health of soldiers in Iraq is not yet known. One study looked at members of four United States combat infantry units (three Army units and one Marine unit) who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The majority of soldiers were exposed to some kind of traumatic, combat-related situations, such as being attacked or ambushed (92 percent), seeing dead bodies (94.5 percent), being shot at (95 percent), and/or knowing someone who was seriously injured or killed (86.5 percent).
After deployment, approximately 12.5 percent of these veterans had PTSD, a rate greater than that found among these soldiers before deployment.
One study of National Guard Soldiers highlighted the persistent effects of combat by looking at the rates of PTSD both three months and 12 months post-deployment. Rates of nine to 31 percent were noted overall, but of even more importance was the persistence of symptoms a year after return. In this study, there was also a high rate of alcohol misuse illustrating self-medication—a risky form of self-treatment for PTSD.
PTSD Treatment in Veterans
The treatment of PTSD is multidimensional, often including both therapy and medications. It’s worth noting, however, that one form of treatment, exposure therapy, may not be advisable for most veterans with PTSD.
At least one study found that this therapy was not helpful, and the only significance between those receiving the therapy (imaginal exposure sessions while adding behavioral activation) and those who did, not was increased anxiety in those treated with this approach.
Regardless of the war, soldiers involved in a war consistently show high rates of PTSD. If you are a veteran, the National Center for PTSD provides some excellent information on coping with the effects of war. If you are returning from Iraq, information about VA Transition Centers and additional resources are also provided. And, if you are a family member of a veteran, important information is also available pertaining to living with and caring for someone with PTSD.