Why Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are finding civilian reentry harder

A Pew study finds that military veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 are surviving more serious injuries – another one of the reasons civilian reentry is so difficult.

Mike McCarn/AP
Andrea Jorgensen reacts to a surprise reunion with her husband, Army Capt. Joe Jorgensen. It was part of a pre-game ceremony to honor Veterans prior to an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Tennessee Titans in Charlotte, N.C., in November.

The American military has been at constant war for more than 10 years. Thousands of soldiers, marines, and other servicemembers have been killed; tens of thousands have been wounded. Many more are dealing with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury.

For those who served in uniform and are now back home, reentry into civilian life has not always been easy, and a new report details the degree of difficulty.

The Pew Research Center reported Thursday that 27 percent of all military veterans say the time following their release from active duty was difficult for them. Among those who served since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, that portion swells to 44 percent – a higher rate than for those who served in Vietnam, Korea, or World War II.

Overall, 32 percent of all military vets say their military experience was “emotionally traumatic or distressing” – a proportion that increases to 43 percent among those who served since 9/11, Pew found.

One reason for that difference is the nature of military service over the past decade: 16 percent of post-9/11 vets experienced a serious injury, significantly more than the 10 percent of vets overall who were seriously injured. (Pew notes that servicemembers with serious injuries are more likely to survive today than in previous wars – a trend that began in Korea with the use of helicopters to bring the wounded to more advanced field hospitals.)

Not surprisingly, those who served in a combat zone and those who knew someone who was killed or injured in combat faced steeper odds of an easy reentry.

What did surprise Pew researchers was finding that post-9/11 vets who were married while in service had a harder time readjusting to civilian life.

“At first glance, this finding seems counterintuitive,” the Pew report states. “Shouldn’t a spouse be a source of comfort and support for a discharged veteran? Other studies of the general population have shown that marriage is associated with a number of benefits, including better health and higher overall satisfaction with life.”

“In fact, the answer to another survey question points to a likely explanation. Post-9/11 veterans who were married while in the service were asked what impact deployments had on their relationship with their spouse. Nearly half (48 percent) say the impact was negative, and this group is significantly more likely than other veterans to have had family problems after they were discharged (77 percent vs. 34 percent) and to say they had a difficult re-entry.”

The study finds several factors tied to an easier reentry into civilian life: being a commissioned officer, having a college degree, and having a clear understanding of the mission. Religious faith is found to have a positive impact here as well.

“Recent veterans who attend services at least once a week are 24 percentage points more likely to say they had an easy re-entry back into civilian life than those who never attend services (67 percent vs. 43 Percent),” Pew reports. “This finding is consistent with other studies of the general population that suggest religious belief is correlated with a number of positive outcomes, including better physical and emotional health, and happier and more satisfying personal relationships.”

It seems likely that the results of this survey are linked, to some degree, to another recent Pew study, “The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections.”

Here, Pew finds that a smaller share of Americans currently serve in the armed forces than at any time since the peace-time era between World Wars I and II, and that consequently far fewer people have relatives in uniform or even know anybody who has served. As a result, Pew reported, fewer than half (47 percent) of those without family ties to the military say they have reached out to help a servicemember or military family – efforts that might help with reentry difficulties.

“During the past decade, as the military has been engaged in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, just one-half of one percent of American adults has served on active duty at any given time,” Pew reported in November. “As the size of the military shrinks, the connections between military personnel and the broader civilian population appear to be growing more distant.”


Related video: President Obama signed into law legislation aimed at helping unemployed veterans find work.

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