The latest research on the long-term health consequences of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OEFA) and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq (OIFI) suggests that US veterans are bringing home a significant number of psychological problems. The most recent study published in August by the American Journal of Public Health estimates that 19% to 42% of returning veterans have one or more clinically-diagnosable mental health conditions.
Returning servicemen and women are turning to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for health care in record numbers, with nearly 40% enrolled as of the end of July. In addition to posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and stress disorders, and sleep impairment, another (somewhat overlooked until now) contributor
to this burden of mental illness is exposure to sexual assault or harassment during service. The newly categorized disturbance is referred to in military lingo as military sexual trauma.
This is not a new phenomenon, as military sexual trauma had been documented in veterans of previous wars. What is different this time, though, is that OEFA and OIFI veterans are the first generation of VHA users to return from a large-scale deployment and have access to comprehensive screening and treatment services.
The most recent study was conducted at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Center for Health Care Evaluation, VA of Palo Alto, California. It was the first comprehensive assessment of the mental health profile associated with a history of military sexual trauma among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
The results show high rates of postdeployment mental health conditions among all OEFA and OIFI patients. Women and men who reported military sexual trauma were significantly more likely than those who did not to also be diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use
Additionally, and not surprisingly, the study shows that the co-occurrence of military sexual trauma and PTSD is substantially more frequent among female soldiers than among males, suggesting that military sexual trauma may be a particularly relevant gender-specific clinical issue in PTSD treatment settings.