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Rates of PTSD in Veterans

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Updated April 16, 2014

Regardless of which war or conflict you look at, high rates of 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.

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% of men and 9% of women were found to have PTSD at the time of the study. Approximately 30% of men and 27% of women had PTSD at some point in their life following Vietnam.

These rates 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 1 million lifetime PTSD cases as a result of the Vietnam War.

Persian Gulf War

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 almost 9% to approximately 24%. These rates are higher than what has been found among veterans not deployed to the Persian Gulf.

Iraq War and Afghanistan

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 in not yet known. One study looked at members of four United States combat infantry units (3 Army and 1 Marine) 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%), seeking dead bodies (94.5%), being shot at (95%), and/or knowing someone who was seriously injured or killed (86.5%).

After deployment, approximately 12.5% had PTSD, a rate greater than that found among these soldiers before deployment.

Conclusion

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.

Sources:

Bartone, P.T. (2000). Hardiness as a resiliency factor for United States forces in the Gulf War. In D. Paton (Ed.), Posttraumatic stress intervention: Challenges, issues, and perspectives (pp. 115-133). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Gray, G.C., Kaiser, K.S., Hawksworth, A.W., Hall, F.W., & Barrett-Connor, E. (1999). Increased postwar symptoms and psychological morbidity among US Navy Gulf War veterans. American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 60, 758-766.

Hoge, C.W., Castro, C.A., Messer, S.C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D.I., & Koffman, R.L. (2004). Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 13-22.

Keane, T.M., & Barlow, D.H. (2002). Posttraumatic stress disorder. In D.H. Barlow (Ed.), Anxiety and its disorders, 2nd edition (pp. 418-453). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Kulka, R.A., Schlenger, W.E., Fairbank, J.A., Hough, R.L., Jordan, B. K., Marmar, C.R., & Weiss, D.S. (1990). Trauma and the Vietnam war generation: Report of findings from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Perconte, S.T., Wilson, A.T., Pontius, E.B., Dietrick, A.L., & Spiro, K.J. (1993). Psychological and war stress symptoms among deployed and non-deployed reservists following the Persian Gulf War. Military Medicine, 158, 516-521.

Pierce, P.F. (1997). Physical and emotional health of Gulf War veteran women. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 68, 317-321.

Stimpson, N.J., Thomas, H.V., Weightman, A.L., Dunstan, F., & Lewis, G. (2003). Psychiatric disorder in veterans of the Persian Gulf War of 1991. British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, 391-403.

Stretch, R.H., Marlowe, D.H., Wright, K.M., Bliese, P.D., Knudson, K.H., & Hoover, C.H. (1996). Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among Gulf War veterans. Military Medicine, 161, 407-410.

Unwin, C., Blatchley, N., Coker, W., Ferry, S., Hotopf, M., Hull, L. et al. (1999). Health of UK servicemen who served in Persian Gulf War. Lancet, 353, 169-178.

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