The Health Risks of a Veteran

Our veterans risk everything to ensure our freedom, but their service often comes with a deep cost. While deployed, military service members may be exposed to dangerous chemicals and infectious diseases, not to mention gunfire and explosions. Upon their return stateside, many veterans encounter health issues they never anticipated, from musculoskeletal injuries and chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

To support veterans and help them obtain the medical treatment they need, it’s important to raise awareness of the many health risks they face. The following includes some of the most common medical conditions veterans may experience.

Musculoskeletal Injuries and Pain

According to a 2011 study, a primary complaint of Gulf War veterans is chronic musculoskeletal pain (CMP), a finding consistent with statistics from the Veteran’s Administration which reports that nearly 48 percent of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had similar complaints. People who suffer from CMP often feel a deep ache throughout their entire body, and they may experience a twitching or burning sensation in their muscles as well. CMP can also lead to fatigue and sleep disturbances. Unfortunately, due to the current nature of warfare, the number of musculoskeletal injuries has increased dramatically, including amputations of all definitions.

Mental Health Conditions

Along with musculoskeletal injuries, many veterans suffer from a variety of mental health conditions. According to a 2008 RAND study, almost 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. These mental illnesses contribute to a high suicide rate; each day, 22 veterans commit suicide, a rate almost twice that of the general population.

Mental health conditions frequently experienced by veterans extend beyond PTSD to include anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse as well. A 2010 study found that PTSD and depression were present in as many as 31 percent of those returning from combat in Iraq and were often associated with high levels of alcohol abuse and aggressive behavior.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

TBI, the “signature wound of the Iraq War,” has joined other mental health conditions as a major threat to mental functionality. TBI’s diagnosis has tripled in military personnel in the last decade, which doesn’t begin to capture the many veterans who aren’t diagnosed. TBI can result in a broad range of cognitive impairments, as well as an array of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Exposure to Chemicals

Exposure to dangerous chemicals is another key health risk that affects many veterans. For example, of the approximately 2.8 million Americans who served in Vietnam, many were exposed to Agent Orange — a blend of herbicides sprayed over dense vegetation to remove enemy cover — which has led to significant health problems including cancer, diabetes type II and ischemic heart disease. More recently, a 2010 study confirmed that long-term heart damage can occur from low-dose exposure to chemical warfare agents.

Vets are often unaware of what they may have been exposed to. In order to help address this problem, the VA provides an overview of common exposure risks based on time periods and locations of deployment.

Infectious Diseases

Soldiers are also exposed to a variety of infectious diseases while they are in the field, depending on where they are deployed. For instance, the VA lists nine infectious diseases that are considered to be related to military service in the Southwest Asia theatre of military operations starting August 2, 1990 to the present.

They include the following:

  • Malaria
  • Brucellosis
  • Campylobacter Jejuni
  • Coxiella Burnetii (Q Fever)
  • Mycobacterium Tuberculosis
  • Nontyphoid Salmonella
  • Shigella
  • Visceral Leishmaniasis
  • West Nile Virus

Exposure to Noise and Vibration

Another source of potential health complications is exposure to noise and vibration, such as gunfire, explosions, rockets, aircraft, heavy weapons and machinery, which puts veterans at risk for hearing loss and tinnitus. Health problems related to vibration exposure include numbness and tingling, as well as pain in the fingers and hands from the use of power hand tools, and low back pain from operating heavy equipment on a regular basis.

Resources for Veterans

Our veterans deserve to get the treatment and support they need to deal with the health issues they face. Receiving adequate health care services helps veterans shift to civilian life and reenter the workface more quickly, a significant hurdle that is often impeded by the slow-moving bureaucracy of the VA.

Significant efforts are underway to address health risks for veterans. Dr. Steven Hunt, national director of the Veterans Affairs Post-Deployment Integrated Care Initiative, has helped establish the Integrated Post-Combat Care Model, which uses an interdisciplinary team-based approach to address the array of physical, psychological, psychosocial and spiritual issues these veterans face. Further initiatives such as The Durkheim Project are among the many resources the Veterans Health Administration is establishing to help. The Durkheim Project analyzes new data sources to better predict the risk of suicide among veterans.

The George Washington University is also working to better support veterans. Named a “military friendly” institution by G.I. Jobs magazine, The George Washington University provides assistance to service members and veterans as they transition out of a combat role. The George Washington University Office of Military and Veteran Student Services often serves as a liaison between the VA and GW to help students receive education benefits and process tuition payments. It also refers military students to counseling if needed.

To determine eligibility for VA benefits and access to care, visit the health benefits site for veterans. You can also learn more about resources for military exposure in our our recent blog post.