Women who served in Vietnam may be at far greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than female military service members who were stationed in the United States during that war, a new study finds.
“Because current PTSD is still present in many of these women decades after their military service, clinicians who treat them should continue to screen for PTSD symptoms and be sensitive to their noncombat wartime experiences,” wrote study leader Kathryn Magruder, of the Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, S.C., and colleagues.
PTSD, an anxiety disorder, can occur after witnessing or experiencing traumatic events. Magruder’s team concluded that job performance pressures and wartime exposure to sexual harassment and discrimination were more prevalent overseas than on U.S. soil, thus accounting for the possible discrepancy in PTSD occurrence.
The researchers sought to understand the impact of wartime deployment on the thousands of American women who served in the Vietnam era — from the mid-1960s to 1973. The study results were published online Oct. 7 in JAMA Psychiatry.
Roughly 5,000 to 7,500 American women served in Vietnam. Another 2,000 were stationed in Asia at bases in Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Korea and Thailand, and 250,000 remained in the United States.
Most of the women deployed to Vietnam were nurses, but some women worked in clerical, medical and administrative positions. Although excluded from combat, they were still exposed to casualties and other sources of stress, the study authors said in a journal news release.
Magruder’s team analyzed survey responses of about 4,200 women who served in the Vietnam War and were interviewed beginning in 2011. The researchers also reviewed VA medical records to validate responses.
Roughly 2,000 of these vets surveyed were stationed in Vietnam, 657 were near Vietnam and about 1,600 served in the United States. The majority who served in the United States and Vietnam were in the Army, while most stationed near Vietnam were in the Air Force.
At some point in their lives, 20 percent of the female Vietnam vets experienced PTSD, compared to 11.5 percent of women serving near Vietnam and 14 percent for women stationed in the United States.
Many of these women, now mostly in their 60s, still suffer because of their experiences. The prevalence for current PTSD (active within the past year) was close to 16 percent for women stationed in Vietnam, about 8 percent for women near Vietnam and about 9 percent for women who served in the United States, the study found.
The results suggest that exposure to stressors such as sexual harassment and job performance pressure increase the odds of PTSD. Sexual discrimination, which was related to PTSD in each analysis, was more common among the women deployed overseas, the researchers also noted.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health provides more information on PTSD.