Health concerns are the most important readjustment challenge veterans face in the first year after leaving military service, according to a just-released study that looked at nearly 10,000 veterans who left the military in fall 2016.
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) researchers conducted surveys on health, social relationships and work for veterans during their first year of transition to civilian life. They found that 53 percent of them said they had chronic physical health conditions and about 33 percent reported chronic mental health conditions at both three and nine months after leaving the military.
The most commonly reported health problems were chronic pain, sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.
Satisfaction with work, relationships
Despite their health issues, many veterans were satisfied with both their work and social relationships. More than half had found work within three months, three-quarters were in intimate relationships, and two-thirds were in regular contact with friends and extended family.
However, the study revealed that the proportion of veterans reporting their ability to function well at work declined over time after they left the service. Dawne Vogt, corresponding author for the study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, suggested that this could be because of health concerns, which are known to erode broader well-being over time.
"What remains to be seen is whether those veterans with health conditions, which were more commonly experienced by deployed veterans, continue to maintain high levels of well-being in other life domains over time,” said Vogt, a research psychologist in the Women's Health Sciences Division at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the VA Boston Healthcare System.
Veterans who participated in the study were from all branches of service, and on average, they had nearly 11 years of military service, including nearly two combat deployments. Among them, 75 percent were non-officers and 23 percent served in combat.
Poorer health for enlisted vets
Enlisted veterans showed consistently poorer health, vocational and social well-being than officers, the study found. Veterans who had deployed to a war zone had more health problems than veterans who did not deploy.
Male veterans were more likely to be employed than female veterans, both three and nine months after leaving the military.
Men also were more likely to report hearing conditions, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Women reported more depression and anxiety.
About 12 percent of both men and women reported PTSD three months after leaving the military. At nine months, nearly 17 percent of women and 13 percent of men reported PTSD.
The study might require the VA to rethink how it prioritizes its efforts and programs, Vogt said. That's in part because most support for new veterans has focused on helping them get good jobs and informing them of their benefits.
"These findings point to the value of targeting intervention to at-risk veteran subgroups and implementing interventions before veterans’ readjustment challenges worsen or have the chance to erode their broader well-being,” she said. “Most transition support currently focuses on the needs of veterans with the most acute or chronic concerns.”