Military-related Sexual Trauma among Veterans Health Administration Patients Returning from Afghanistan and Iraq

Rachel Kimerling, PhD; Amy E. Street, PhD; Joanne Pavao, MPH; Mark W. Smith, PhD; Ruth C. Cronkite, PhD; Tyson H. Holmes, PhD; Susan M. Frayne, MD, MPH

Disclosures

Am J Public Health. 2010;100(8):1409-1412. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

We examined military-related sexual trauma among deployed Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans. Of 125729 veterans who received Veterans Health Administration primary care or mental health services, 15.1% of the women and 0.7% of the men reported military sexual trauma when screened. Military sexual trauma was associated with increased odds of a mental disorder diagnosis, including posttraumatic stress disorder, other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use disorders. Sexual trauma is an important postdeployment mental health issue in this population.

Introduction

Emerging research with US veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq suggests that the mental health effects of these deployments are significant. An estimated 19% to 42% of this population have mental health conditions.[1–4] One of the potential contributors to this burden of mental illness is exposure to sexual assault or harassment during service, referred to within the Veterans Health Administration as military sexual trauma.[5] Considerable data attest to the negative mental health consequences of such experiences in both military and civilian populations,[5–13] yet no data investigating military sexual trauma in the context of postdeployment mental health among the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom cohort are currently available.

Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans are eligible for 5 years of free care through the Veterans Health Administration for conditions related to their military service. This cohort is turning to the Veterans Health Administration for health care in record numbers, with nearly 40% enrolled to date.[14] The Veterans Health Administration has recently invested significant resources in the detection and treatment of military sexual trauma, implementing universal military sexual trauma screening in 2002 and providing free care for all related conditions.[5] Although military sexual trauma had been documented in veterans of previous war eras,[15,16] Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans are the first generation of Veterans Health Administration users to return from a large-scale deployment to these comprehensive screening and treatment services.

For our study, we completed, to our knowledge, the first national, population-based assessment of the mental health profile associated with a history of military sexual trauma among deployed Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans who used Veterans Health Administration services. We describe the prevalence of military sexual trauma and characterized the postdeployment mental health conditions among patients who reported a history of military sexual trauma.

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