Physical Health of Veterans From Iraq and Afghanistan

Medical doctor evaluates veteran during appointment
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Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are showing high rates of PTSD, alcohol use, depression and difficulties with anger, and the physical health of veterans has also been found to be suffer.

The experience of a traumatic event has been connected with a number of physical health problems as well as unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking. Obviously, being deployed in a war zone, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, increases the likelihood that a person will experience a traumatic event and thus be at a greater risk for developing PTSD and potential physical health problems. Soldiers deployed to a war zone, however, also face additional risk factors for physical health problems, including sustaining a physical injury and being exposed to environmental contaminants (dangerous chemicals).

Therefore, a study by researchers at the Seattle VA Hospital examined what factors (the experience of PTSD symptoms, physical injury, exposure to environmental contaminants) may be connected to physical health problems among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans.

The Study

The researchers had 108 veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who were seeking treatment at a postdeployment clinic, complete surveys that asked questions about exposure to traumatic events while in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as questions about their physical health and whether or not they were experiencing symptoms of PTSD.

The soldiers, on average, had high levels of combat exposure. Almost 40% were physically injured during their deployment and approximately 11% had an injury due to combat. In addition, the soldiers reported encountering an average of nine different types of chemical exposures, including diesel fuel, anthrax immunization, malaria immunization, and depleted uranium. Almost 40% met criteria for PTSD. In regard to physical health-related behaviors, a quarter smoked (with most smoking one pack a day) and a quarter reported some signs of problematic alcohol use.

Soldiers' reports of their general health were found to be linked to their level of combat exposure, chemical exposure, drinking, smoking and experience of PTSD symptoms. Out of all of these symptoms, though, PTSD symptoms seemed to have the strongest connection; that is, the more severe a soldier's PTSD symptoms, the worse their general health was.

What Does This All Mean

The findings from this study are important as they show that our returning soldiers may face many challenges besides readjustment. High levels of combat exposure, drinking, smoking, chemical exposure, and PTSD were found in this group of soldiers — all of which (especially PTSD) were connected to worse general physical health.

If you are a returning service member in need of mental health services, it is important to go to your local VA for help. The National Center for PTSD provides information on what steps you can take to get help. You can also get help through other resources, such as the Anxiety Disorder Association of America and UCompare Healthcare service.

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Article Sources

  • Erbes, C., Westermeyer, J., Engdahl, B., & Johnsen, E. (2007). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Service Utilization in a Sample of Service Members From Iraq and Afghanistan. Military Medicine, 172, 359-363.

  • 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.

  • Jakupcak, M., Conybeare, D., Phelps, L., Hunt, S., Holmes, H.A., Felker, B., Klevens, M., & McFall, M.E. (2007). Anger, Hostility, and Aggression Among Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans Reporting PTSD and Subthreshold PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20, 945-954.

  • Jakupcak, M., Luterek, J., Hunt, S., Conbeare, D., & McFall, M. (2008). Posttraumatic Stress and Its Relationship to Physical Health Functioning in a Sample of Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans Seeking Postdeployment VA Health Care. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196, 425-428.