Health Burdens Plague Veterans After Leaving Military

January 7, 2020

Veterans’ health concerns need to be addressed more proactively to ensure that they do not experience a decline in their broader well-being over time, according to a new study.

A new study highlights the value of addressing veterans’ health concerns at the time that they leave military service.

“Currently, much of the transition support offered to separating veterans focuses on preparing them for civilian employment, and providing information on benefits,” says study lead author Dawne Vogt, PhD, research health scientist with the National Center for PTSD, VA Boston Healthcare System and associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.

For the study, published Jan. 2, 2019, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vogt and colleagues investigated which of these challenges are most pressing to newly separated veterans. They surveyed almost 10,000 veterans from a population-based roster of all separating service members. All participants left the military in the fall of 2016. Veterans were surveyed about three months after their separation, and then six months after that, and weights were applied to enhance the applicability of findings to the larger veteran population.

Main findings

There were three main findings of the study:

  •  Veterans demonstrate a high health burden as they separate from service, with almost one in every two veterans reporting physical health conditions and about a third reporting mental health conditions.

  • Most veterans reported relatively high well-being in occupational and social domains despite these health problems, with many veterans reporting that they had found jobs and were relatively well integrated within their communities within the first year after leaving service.

  • There were important differences in the health and well-being of veterans based on enlisted status (vs. officer status), gender, and deployment history, with enlisted veterans (vs. officers) reporting poorer well-being across all life domains assessed, female veterans reporting more mental health concerns than men, and deployed veterans reporting more health problems than their non-deployed peers.

“The finding that warfare-deployed veterans did not report poorer well-being in their occupational or social readjustment than those who were not deployed during their time of service was unexpected and is a testament to the resilience of deployed veterans,” Vogt says. “What remains to be seen is whether they will experience declines in their broader well-being if their health problems are not adequately treated.”

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Although most aspects of veterans’ health and well-being did not change substantially over the first year after separation, the researchers found that veterans experienced a decline in their work functioning, which may be a consequence of untreated health conditions.

“Future research will examine this research question, as well as how veterans’ health and well-being changes over the full three years of the study timeframe,” Vogt says.

In addition, much of the post-transition support provided to veterans primarily addresses the needs of veterans with the most chronic or severe concerns, according to Vogt.

“The current study suggests the potential value of screening for commonly experienced health conditions in the first year after veterans leaving military service. Moreover, findings underscore the importance of applying individually tailored intervention strategies that can identify and support at-risk veterans,” she says.

The study was conducted as part of the Veterans Metrics Initiative (TVMI), a collaboration among researchers from multiple research settings, including the VA, that was managed by the Henry Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine.

“The purpose of the collaboration is to identify what type of support is needed to promote veterans’ health and well-being after they leave service,” Vogt says. “The current study addresses a number of important limitations of prior research, including the fact that no study has yet to provide a longitudinal examination of how veterans fare as they go through the transition from military service to civilian life and most of the research that is available has been based on samples that are not representative of the larger veteran population and thus cannot adequately inform allocation of resources at a national level.”