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WASHINGTON - Women and men are equally likely to face combat-related mental health issues in the year after returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new study funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The findings surprised the study's authors, who predicted that as women increasingly take on roles in America's current wars that bring them in close contact with violence and death, they would fare worse than men exposed to similar levels of combat stress.

"We'd predicted, based on the broader trauma literature, that women were going to be slightly more vulnerable to combat stresses than men," said lead author Dawne Vogt of the VA's National Center for PTSD and the Boston University School of Medicine. "That's not what the results showed, however."

Instead, across four measures of psychological effects - post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, substance abuse, and the extent to which mental health issues hamper normal life - women and men reacted similarly, according to study results published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

The results contradicted a study presented late last month at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Researchers there reported that women were much more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, based on an analysis of 922 National Guard members, including 91 women, who served in Iraq in 2008.

But Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women's Action Network, said the apparent discrepancy could be a reflection of greater levels of training and feelings of preparedness among women troops in the VA study compared to the APA's study of National Guard troops. Half the troops in the VA study were active duty, while 25 percent were National Guard and another 25 percent were reservists.

"We know war does not discriminate," he said. "Servicewomen are fighting, dying and serving alongside their male counterparts, and they have same wounds of war to show for it."

Vogt's study surveyed 350 female and 250 male servicemembers in the year after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. It broke down combat stressors into four categories: actual exposure to combat, exposure to bodies or other combat aftermaths, combat-related fear, and combat-related difficulties in living and working environments.

Results showed, unsurprisingly, that men experience more combat overall than women. But the complexity of current fighting environments - ranging from insurgent hit-and-run attacks to roadside bombs - means the gap is not as wide as might be expected.

"Despite the fact women are barred from direct ground combat roles, it's very clear they are experiencing combat," Vogt said. "It's less than men, but not substantially less."

About 140 women have been killed in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several hundred more have been injured. A recent report by the Pentagon's Military Leadership Diversity Commission suggested lifting rules against women servign in traditional combat units. Such a policy change would require congressional and presidential approval.

carrollc@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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