Progress: Women and Men Show Equal Mental Resilience in War Zones

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The big post-war challenge

Apparently war is an equal-opportunity destroyer, screwing up female troops’ minds as much — pretty much no more, no less — than those belonging to their male comrades. That’s the bottom line in a new study trying to contrast the mental wounds of war in both genders.

“Study findings suggest that both exposure to combat-related stressors and their associated impact on post-deployment mental health in the year following return from deployment may be more similar than different for female and male U.S. service members,” says the report, published by the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology. “This finding is striking given that it contrasts with the widely accepted view that women are more vulnerable to the negative impact of trauma exposure than men.”

The study adds that “these findings have substantial implications for military policy, as they call into question the commonly held belief that women may be more vulnerable to the negative effects of combat exposure than men.”

Researchers measured stress by charting troops’ combat exposure, firing and being fired upon, witnessing casualties, dealing with human remains and detainees, general living conditions in a war zone, and fearing for one’s personal safety. Men reported more exposure to combat and difficult living conditions. “The fact that these differences were relatively small, however, suggests that women’s exposure to these stressors in [Iraq and Afghanistan] may be, on average, only slightly lower than men’s exposure on average,” the study found.

The study grappled with how come women experienced as much “subjective perceived threat in the war zone” as their male comrades. “It is possible that women’s increased vulnerability to other stressors in the war zone, including sexual harassment, may have increased their perceptions of threat to levels that were comparable to that reported by men,” it said. “In addition, given that all service members are at risk of combat exposure in these wars, it is perhaps not surprising that women report comparable levels of concern regarding their safety and well-being in the war zone. It may also be that the threshold for experiencing threat is lower for women than men…”

The research was based on survey responses from 595 random-selected service members from the Defense Manpower Data Center database. It included 340 women and 252 men from active duty, National Guard, and Reserve forces who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2007 and 2008. “There were no significant interactions between combat-related stressors and gender in the prediction of PTSS [post-traumatic stress symptomatology], mental health functioning, or depression,” the study concluded.

“Contrary to popular belief, women who go to war respond to combat trauma much like their male counterparts,” said lead author Dawne Vogt of the Veterans Administration National Center for PTSD and the Boston University School of Medicine. “And with the unpredictable guerrilla tactics of modern warfare, barring women from ground combat is less meaningful.”

Maybe, maybe not. That’s a debate — largely political, not medical — for another day. But somehow it’s reassuring that both men and women apparently can be equally discombobulated by war.