Thursday, August 23, 2007

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.


OregonGuy said...

The Air Guard is active in my local area. Through personal contact--this is a small town--I've met one woman, Guard, who is/was looking to get her meal ticket punched. The term "Guardhouse Lawyer" comes to mind.

How many of these women are looking for a meal ticket? And the woman I'm refering to would state that she isn't looking for a meal ticket. Just a way to "make the Guard pay".

Unknown said...

And that's a reason that many of these sexual assault/rape allegations go nowhere. Investigations reveal that the attack never occurred, or that the activity was consensual.

In fact, there's an active duty AF airman (E-4) at Pope AFB right now, charged with lying to investigators, after she claimed that three other airmen raped her.

As the father of three daughters, I have no tolerance for rapists or men who sexually harass women. But I'm also aware that there are women who falsely claim that they were attacked, out of revenge, a desire for a payday, or to justify a PTSD disability claim.

I've written extensively about the "queen" of bogus PTSD claims, Air Force Maj Jill Metzger, who claims she was kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan last year. She played the system like a fiddle, and Maj Metzger is now on a paid "medical leave" and there's a strong suspicion that she'll eventually get a PTSD disability pension.

Meanwhile, thousands of combat vets who really have PTSD are still trying to work their way through the military/VA systems. It sickens me to know that some of these phonies are receiving benfits that should go to vets--men and women--who are suffering from PTSD.

Nancy Reyes said...

ten percent of women have PTSD...
And you have to realize that not all cases are severe: like other mental illnesses, it can vary from mild to severe.

If you do good "screening" you will pick up more cases. The US Air force, like the ARMY has a good program to intervene to pick up cases of stress/depression, which is probably why the suicide rate is so low.

Yes, I said low: the rate is the same as in civilian doctors.

Most of the news articles are biased from the anti war nuts, but ironically, what caused a lot more stress to Viet Nam vets was the bitterness from the calumny against them by our institutions and sometimes even by strangers or friends.