Behind the Numbers
Mark Twain's famous line about "lies, damned lies, and statistics" crossed our minds when we saw this Air Force Times headline about the incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among Air Force women who've served in combat:
One-fifth of female airmen in combat get PTSD
It's not that we doubt the claims of female airmen with PTSD--far from it. There's no doubt that women serving in combat suffer from that often-debillitating condition, along with their male counterparts. What we find curious is how the researchers (at the University of Michigan) apparently arrived at their total, prompting the Air Force Times article that suggests PTSD is a major problem among female airmen who've deployed.
Let's begin with some basic Air Force demographics, to put the numbers in their proper context. At the end of 2006, the service had 340,664 personnel on active duty; of that total, just under 67,000 were women, or 16.9% of the force. Women comprise just over 18% of the Air Force officer corps, and 20% of its enlisted ranks. In terms of the military has a whole, women in the Air Force represent roughly 5% of the active duty force. Female representation in the Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve (AFRES) is slightly lower than the active component.
Now, here's a more salient statistic, courtesy of Chief Buddy, who's been tracking USAF deployments for years. His data shows that 53% of Air Force personnel have never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Using that benchmark, that means that no more than 32,000 Air Force women have served in a war zone over the past six years.
We can't find any reliable data on the number of female airmen who've actually seen combat in the Middle East, and the Michigan study doesn't say how it defines combat service. But the Defense Manpower Center did provide contact information (to the Michigan researchers) on 2,344 Air Force women who've deployed at least once since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of that total, 1.114 met the study's "inclusion criteria" (which were not defined), and became the study sample. Twenty percent of those surveyed (a total of 222 female airmen) say they're experiencing at least one major symptom of PTSD.
But the root cause(s) of those symptoms may be difficult to trace. Michigan researchers found that work-family conflicts are (apparently) a predictor of PTSD among female airmen. Almost 30% of the the participants, and 36% had a dependent child during their deployment, suggesting that the survey was slightly biased toward those likely to be torn between work and family. In other words, many of the respondents may have been pre-disposed toward PTSD symptoms, based on existing "stressors" in their lives.
Additionally, the Michigan research makes no mention of other factors that may contribute to PTSD, such as sexual harassment and assault. And, there's no comparison to PTSD rates among female veterans of other conflicts. With a little digging, we discovered that 25% of female veterans of the Vietnam War eventually developed PTSD, compared with 16% of the women who served during Operation Desert Storm. In both cases, PTSD rates were higher among female veterans than their male counterparts. If those figures are accurate, then the number of women experiencing PTSD symptoms after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is consistent with previous wars.
Finally, we'd like to see a more detailed breakout of the 222 female airmen, identified as having at least one PTSD symptom by the Michigan study. How many of those women identify combat situations as the trigger point for their condition, and how many of them were traumatized by other events--such as a sexual assualt--that led to PTSD symptoms?
We'd also like more analysis on (perhaps) the most startling statistics produced by researchers. They found that most of the women planned to continue their military careers, despite the stress they might face:
"51 percent of the women surveyed said it was "very likely" or "extremely likely" that they would continue to serve in the Air Force. About 18 percent said it was "likely" they would re-enlist."
In other words, almost 70% of the women who "met the criteria" for a DoD-funded PTSD study are likely to re-enlist in the Air Force, with the knowledge that they could be deployed and face the same situations again. That suggests that most of the women find the stress of serving in a war zone (and for some, the added burden of family-job conflict) is manageable, allowing them to continue their military careers. And that may indicate that the "problem" outlined in the Michigan research isn't as bad as the headlines might suggest.