Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Magruder: There has been lots of attention and concern over PTSD in your younger veterans — both male and female — and in male Vietnam veterans. Too often the women who served during the Vietnam Era have been largely overlooked. We felt like we owed it to them to understand better their responses to their wartime experiences — even if 40 years later. It’s never too late to do the right thing!
Our main finding is that the women who served in Vietnam had high prevalence of PTSD (20% lifetime, 16% current) and this was not attributable to cases that had developed prior to entering the military. This was higher than the women who served near Vietnam or in the United States. When we looked at their reported experiences during the Vietnam Era, the women who were in Vietnam reported higher levels of exposure to all of the items on our scale. It was these experiences — especially sexual harassment, performance pressures, and experiences with triage and death — that explained their higher levels of PTSD.
Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Dr. Magruder: Clinicians should not forget to ask all women if they have been in the armed services and inquire about their military experiences. They should be vigilant to symptoms of PTSD — even in aging women veterans — and encourage them to seek appropriate treatment if warranted. Women who have served, even if it was 40+ years ago, should not be hesitant to discuss experiences and symptoms with their providers and to seek help. Clinicians should also appreciate and celebrate these women for the service they provided at a very difficult time in our nation’s history. As I mentioned before, it’s never too late!
There is also a public health/prevention message. While some war zone experiences are inevitable (e.g. exposure to horrific casualties, dead bodies, etc), sexual harassment is not. We need to work hard to change military culture so that future women veterans so that military sexual harassment is not a PTSD risk factor for future generations.
Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Magruder: We need to continue to follow these women to see how their health and mental health progresses. In addition, we need to examine other psychiatric disorders and comorbid medical conditions — including dementia. We also need to look at their strengths and how they have coped positively with their adverse military experiences.
Kathryn Magruder PhD, MPH, Tracey Serpi PhD, Rachel Kimerling PhD, Amy M. Kilbourne PhD, Joseph F. Collins ScD, Yasmin Cypel PhD, MS, Susan M. Frayne MD, MPH, Joan Furey RN, MA, Grant D. Huang MPH, PhD, Theresa Gleason PhD, Matthew J. Reinhard PsyD, Avron Spiro PhD, Han Kang DrPH
Kathryn Magruder, Ph.D., M.P.H. (2015). Female Vietnam War Vets Have High Prevalence of PTSD