WALTHAM, MA—While an association between combat exposure and post-deployment behavioral health problems has been demonstrated among U.S. military servicemembers returning from Afghanistan or Iraq in predominantly male samples, few studies have focused on the experiences of women.

A new study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress sought to remedy that.1

Brandeis University-led researchers used data from the longitudinal, observational Substance Use and Psychological Injury Combat (SUPIC) Study to analyze the self-reports of four combat-exposure items and post-deployment behavioral health screening results for 42,397 Army enlisted women who had returned from Afghanistan or Iraq from fiscal years 2008 through 2011.

The study team analyzed the information to determine how a constructed composite combat exposure score (0, 1, 2, 3+) was associated with screening positive post-deployment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and at-risk drinking among active duty (AD) and National Guard/Reserve (NG/R) women.

AD and NG/R women commonly reported being wounded, injured, assaulted or hurt—17.3% and 29.0%, respectively—and, in all six multivariate models, results indicate that Army women with any report of combat exposure had increased odds of the behavioral health problems such as, PTSD, depression or at-risk drinking.

Study authors note that the magnitude of the association between combat exposure and PTSD was most striking, indicating increased odds of PTSD as combat exposure score increased. AD and NG/R women with a combat exposure score of 3+ had increased odds of PTSD, 20.7and 27.8, respectively.

“Our findings suggest that injuries, assaults and combat exposures experienced by women during deployment may have an additive, negative effect on their post-deployment behavioral health,” explained lead author Rachel Sayko Adams, PhD, MPH. “Ongoing forcewide screening for behavioral health problems should be coupled with development and evaluation of programs to improve the psychological wellbeing of the Armed Forces.”

“Women who report combat exposure may benefit from early prevention and confidential intervention to promote post-deployment health and reduce long-term behavioral health problems,” the researchers conclude.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

1 Adams RS, Nikitin RV, Wooten NR, Williams TV, Larson MJ. The Association of Combat Exposure With Postdeployment Behavioral Health Problems Among U.S. Army Enlisted Women Returning From Afghanistan or Iraq. J Trauma Stress. 2016 Aug;29(4):356-64. doi: 10.1002/jts.22121. Epub 2016 Aug 1. PubMed PMID: 27476700.