A new study disagrees with a long-held opinion on the ability of women soldiers to handle combat stress.
The finding that female military service-members may be as resilient to combat stress as men comes from a study by Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) researchers on female military service-members from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
The study can be found online in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
Existing opinion has been that women may be more vulnerable to the effects of trauma exposure. However, the belief was based on samples in which women’s combat exposure was limited. Further, the analyses did not directly address gender differences in associations between combat exposure and post-deployment mental health.
Women’s role in the combat zone has changed dramatically both as a consequence of women’s changing role in the war zone, as well as the evolving nature of modern warfare.
Accordingly, female service-members have experienced unprecedented levels of combat exposure in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While women are still officially barred from direct ground combat positions in the U.S. military, they serve in a variety of positions that put them at risk for combat exposure.
The current study addressed a representative sample of female and male U.S. veterans who had returned from deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq within the previous year.
As expected, women reported slightly less exposure than men to most combat-related stressors, but higher exposure to other stressors (i.e., prior life stress, deployment and sexual harassment). No gender differences were observed in reports of perceived threat in the war zone.
“Contrary to our hypothesis that associations between combat-related stressors and post-deployment mental health would be slightly stronger for women than men, only one of 16 interactions achieved a conventional level of statistical significance and this interaction suggested a stronger negative association for men rather than women,” said lead author Dawne Vogt, Ph.D.
“This finding is important because it appears to suggest fairly comparable levels of resilience to combat-related stressors for women and men, at least during the time frame evaluated in this study,” she added.
The researchers believe additional studies are needed to promote a better understanding of the factors that may contribute to similar levels of resilience to combat trauma among female and male U.S. service-members deployed in support of OEF/OIF.