Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and PTSD

OEF and OIF Veterans and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Veterans of OEF and OIF have a high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Credit: John Moore / Staff / Getty Images

We know that those who are exposed to trauma are at an increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What do we know about OEF/OIF and PTSD?

OEF/OIF - How Common is PTSD in Veterans?

OEF/OIF is an acronym that refers to the U.S.-led conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Specifically, OEF means "Operation Enduring Freedom" (the war in Afghanistan), while OIF stands for "Operation Iraqi Freedom," or the Iraq War.

Veterans from the OEF/OIF conflicts have been found to have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that some 10 to 18 percent of OEF/OIF veterans have or had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and may be at risk for other mental health problems.

PTSD was more likely to be diagnosed in service members several months after they returned from the two conflicts, rather than right away. Here's some information on the conflicts and how PTSD has affected those who participated.

OIF: Operation Iraqi Freedom and PTSD

Operation Iraqi Freedom — the Iraq War — started with the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 and officially ended in 2011 when the U.S. and its allies withdrew its forces. Soldiers returning from Iraq (many of whom served multiple deployments) were at high risk of PTSD, in large part because they had faced many combat stressors as part of their service — in general, more than those soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

Iraq War combat veterans experienced multiple stressors (traumatic events linked to PTSD) that can contribute to PTSD. According to studies from the VA, some 95 percent of OIF combat veterans reported seeing dead bodies. Meanwhile, 93 percent said they had been shot at, 89 percent said they had been attacked or ambushed, 86 percent received mortar or rocket fire, and 86 percent said they knew someone who had been seriously injured or killed.

OEF: Operation Enduring Freedom and PTSD

Operation Enduring Freedom was launched by the United States and its allies as a response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 that brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

The attacks were linked to al Qaeda, a terrorist group operating in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, and so the U.S. in October 2001 invaded Afghanistan in an effort to oust the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda. Operation Enduring Freedom lasted for 13 years, until December 2014, when the U.S. and its allies ended their combat mission in Afghanistan.

Although OEF combat veterans generally don't suffer from PTSD at the same rates as OIF veterans, significant numbers of soldiers who participated in this conflict experienced combat stressors, according to the VA.

Specifically, 84 percent said they had received mortar or rocket fire, 66 percent said they had been shot at, 58 percent said they had been attacked or ambushed, 43 percent said they knew someone who had been seriously injured or killed, and 39 percent said they had seen dead bodies.

Mental Illness in OEF/OIF Veterans

While up to 18 percent of OEF/OIF veterans suffer from PTSD, these veterans also are at high risk for other mental health problems.

Specifically, depression may have affected between 3 and 25 percent of those returning from these conflicts (due to widely differing methods used in the studies conducted, it's difficult to get a firm read on how many suffered depression). Veterans may also have had difficulties with drinking and excessive tobacco use, the VA says.

What Can You Do if You Are Experiencing PTSD Symptoms as a Veteran?

Unfortunately, even though we know PTSD is very common among Veterans, and treatments are available, too many Veterans are seeking out help. Thankfully, something is being done about this. The Department of Defense realizes there is a stigma problem and is taking measures to reduce the stigma.

Veterans no longer need to report that they are seeking out mental health treatment for combat-related reasons. The Military is also trying to spread the word that symptoms such as PTSD are normal after experiencing the stressors of war. Many Veterans are coming forward sharing their experience as well as a way to decrease the stigma and allow others to speak up about their struggles.

Families of Veterans with PTSD

As a final note, it's important to bring up families. Few people experience PTSD in isolation, and it's important the concerns and needs of family members of those who serve are recognized as well. In addition, it's been noted in a few studies (not all) that dependent's of Veterans who develop PTSD as a result of the stressors or war may have an increased risk of developing PTSD as well.

Resources for Veterans Living with PTSD and Other Mental Health Concerns

If you are living with PTSD but don't know where to start, there are resources available. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs National Center for PTSD is dedicated to research and education surrounding PTSD. Other Military Resources are available which can help with the spectrum of mental health concerns and more that concern veterans.

In addition to mental health support, there are VA drug rehab services, which can go hand in hand, as many people with PTSD related to the stressors of war self medicate.

Sources:

Diehle, J., Brooks, S., and N. Greenberg. Veterans are not the Only Ones Suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms: What do We Know About Dependent’s Secondary Traumatic Stress? Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 2016 Oct 21. (Epub ahead of print).

Guina, J., Welton, R., Broderick, P., Correll, T., and R. Peirson. DSM-5 Criteria and Its Implications for Diagnosing PTSD in Military Service Members and Veterans. Current Psychiatry Reports. 2016. 18(5):43.

Hoge, C., Riviere, L., Wilk, J., Herrell, R., and F. Weathers. The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in US combat soldiers: a head-to-head comparison of DSM-5 versus DSM-IV-TR symptom criteria with the PTSD checklist. Lancet Psychiatry. 2014. 1(4):269-77.

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