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U.S. Military Women Exposed to More Combat Than Ever Before

THURSDAY, Jan. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Female American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been involved in more combat than in prior wars and have the same post-traumatic stress disorder rate as men, a new study has found.

For the study, researchers looked at over 7,000 active-duty soldiers who served in the war zones and found that 4 percent of female soldiers reported killing, 9 percent reported witnessing killing, 31 percent reported exposure to death and 7 percent suffered a combat-related injury.

In comparison, 1 percent of female soldiers involved in the 1990-1991 Gulf War reported killing, 14 percent witnessed a death and 2 percent suffered a combat-related injury, the investigators found.

For most categories of combat stress, the mental health effects on male and female soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were the same. Both had the same rate (18 percent) of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but women injured in combat were more likely to have PTSD than injured men.

Women were somewhat more likely to report depression symptoms, while men were somewhat more likely to have a post-deployment drinking problem, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) researchers found.

Military sexual trauma -- defined as sexual assault or repeated sexual harassment -- was reported by 12 percent of women and 1 percent of men. Military sexual trauma was strongly associated with PTSD and depression in both women and men, according to the report released online in advance of publication in a print issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

The findings have important implications for the Veterans Affairs health care system, according to lead study author Shira Maguen, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF and a clinical psychologist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

"If women are indeed being exposed to combat stressors at a higher rate than in prior eras, we have to be prepared to provide the services they need, and take into account the impact that these stressors can have on their mental health functioning," she said in a university news release.

"We also need to take a closer look at physical injury and its potential impact on women's psychological health," Maguen added.

More information

The Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about women veterans and mental health.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of California, San Francisco, news release, Jan. 13, 2012

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