Health issues are the main concern facing veterans in the first year after leaving the military — more than jobs or personal relationships, a new survey of nearly 10,000 veterans has found.
While most veterans said they were satisfied and functioning well at work and in their social lives, more than half reported having a physical health problem and a third said they had a mental health condition.
The survey, conducted by researchers from the VA National Center for PTSD and elsewhere, also showed that women veterans had a higher prevalence of mental health conditions than men and lower satisfaction with overall health, while enlisted veterans reported poorer health and work satisfaction than officers.
The research, published Thursday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, sought to determine what the most pressing challenges encountered by veterans in the first year of transition — a period during which they must find a new home, job, health care and community.
The results could help guide development programs to support former service members, explained lead author Dawne Vogt, a research health scientist with the VA’s National Center, the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine.
“We wanted to see what the broader population looks like in terms of their health and well-being, with the idea that this can inform how we prioritize the support that we provide to veterans as they go through transition,” Vogt said.
What the researchers found was that new veterans face a “pretty high health burden,” reporting chronic pain, sleeping disorders, anxiety, depression, arthritis and other conditions.
But the study also found that most of the 9,566 respondents were employed (68 percent), functioning well at work (86 percent) and satisfied with their jobs (65 percent), nine months after leaving service.
They also reported being in an intimate relationship (80 percent) and were satisfied with it (68 percent). And the majority also reported being involved in their communities (60 percent).
“Most veterans reported relatively high vocational and social well-being, a finding that highlights the resilience of the veteran population ... that should be reassuring to those concerned about the well-being of newly separated veterans,” the authors wrote.
Where these veterans encountered problems, however, is with their health.
The survey found troops who had deployed to war zones had more health problems than those never assigned to a combat zone, and women veterans reported higher rates of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, than men.
Men experienced higher rates of chronic pain, sleeping issues, arthritis, hearing loss or tinnitus, high blood pressure and high cholesterol at higher rates than women.
More than 200,000 troops leave military service each year. Advocates for veterans and researchers point to the first year of transition as a critical period for former service members’ well-being and acclimating to civilian life.
While past studies have indicated that veterans flail in the first year of leaving the military, Vogt said their survey did not show this to be the case.
“There have been some studies ... that suggested there were lots of problems with veterans finding jobs. That’s not really what we saw. We saw they were doing well in lots of ways,” Vogt said.
The surveyors reached out to nearly 47,000 veterans who left the service in 2016 and received survey responses from 23 percent of the group.
Chief among findings was that enlisted veterans fared worse in the first year than officers, reporting higher rates of mental and physical health conditions, lower employment and lower rates of satisfaction with their health, jobs and relationships.
The survey also found that between six months and nine months after the transition, assessments of job performance declined, a data point Vogt said could be related to health problems.
Veterans who left the military in fall 2016 were invited to participate in the research. Respondents were surveyed at three months and nine months after discharge.
While the small sample size points to the survey’s limits, Vogt expressed confidence in the results because her team looked at characteristics of those who didn’t respond, and after comparing them with the characteristics of those who took the survey, found similar circumstances, suggesting "our results aren’t too biased,” she said.
Vogt added that if the study had limitations, it is likely that the health conditions were under-reported because those surveyed may not recognize that they have a health problem or were reluctant to discuss personal health issues.
The researchers say their findings can help not only the VA, which provides services and care for veterans, but the 40,000 advocacy and health groups that provide programs and services to transitioning veterans.
Vogt said the findings suggest that health concerns should be prioritized when planning transition support and programs.
Vogt has discussed the findings with VA officials managing the Transition Assistance Program and the Solid Start program — an initiative in which VA contacts all new veterans in the year after discharge — to add a medical screening awareness component to such programs.
“The results are really applicable to those efforts,” Vogt said.
She added that the team continued to survey the veterans after their departure and plans to analyze the results to determine how the health and well-being of these former service members changes over the years.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.