October 28, 2008 – One in seven female soldiers who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and later sought healthcare for any reason reported being sexually harassed or assaulted during their military service, according to a study by Veterans Affairs researchers.
In contrast, only 0.7% of male soldiers reported similar experiences.
Women who reported harassment or assault were 2.3 times as likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder as those who did not, and were also more likely to suffer from depression or engage in substance abuse. Men who reported harassment or assault were 1.5 times more likely to suffer PTSD or other disorders.
Similar data have been found in other studies of the military, “but these are the first data specifically coming from veterans deployed in those operations, which makes them novel,” said clinical psychologist Amy Street of the National Center for PTSD at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.
No previous study had correlated sexual misconduct with mental health problems among veterans of the deployments, said Street, a co-author of the research.
The data are being presented today at a San Diego meeting of the American Public Health Assn.
The study started with all patients who used VA healthcare between Oct. 1, 2001, and Oct. 1, 2007. They were matched against an administrative list of soldiers who were deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Those deployed may not have actually served in those two countries, however.
More than 125,000 patients met both criteria. All patients seeking medical care are routinely asked if they have been subjected to harassment or assault. “They may not tell if they are not asked about them,” Street said.
Among this group, 15.1% of women and 0.7% of men answered positively. The data do not indicate what proportion were assaulted, and researchers don’t know if the incidents happened while they were deployed or simply sometime during military service.
The rates are lower than those of a similar study released last year by Street and her colleagues. In that study of all VA healthcare users in 2003, not just those deployed, the researchers found that 21.5% of females and 1% of males had reported suffering sexual assault or harassment.
The researchers are uncertain why the rate was lower among deployed soldiers.
The Department of Defense has developed a sexual assault prevention and response program “and we may be seeing a response to those policies,” Street said.