Vets May Bring Extra Baggage

June 1, 2009

College-going veterans in Minnesota and their classmates have similar overall health issues, but female veterans are substantially more likely to have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, according to what may be the first comprehensive study of the population.

A new report, “Health and Health-Related Behaviors: Minnesota Postsecondary Student Veterans,” provides a glimpse of the health issues an influx of veterans are likely to bring to college when the Post-9/11 GI Bill takes effect in August. While the sample was limited to one state, it serves as an early portrait of a population that is expected to grow rapidly on college campuses in the coming years.

“There are no studies we know of in any other state or in the country that look at veterans the way we have,” said Edward Ehlinger, director and chief health officer of Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota.

Ehlinger, who authored the study of more than 8,000 veterans, said he was somewhat surprised to see that veterans’ health issues largely mirrored those of other college students. There were notable exceptions, however, when analyzing rates of sexual assault and post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Of those surveyed, 43.5 percent of female veterans reported being sexually assaulted in their lifetime, nearly 14 percentage points higher than female students overall. The survey defined sexual assault as sexual intercourse or sexual touching without consent.

As for PTSD, 14.1 percent of females said they’d been diagnosed with the condition, compared with 5.4 percent of women overall. Male veterans had a lower rate of PTSD – 9.1 percent— but still outpaced the general male student population by 6.3 percentage points.

The average age of the surveyed veterans was 29.5 years, and it’s unclear whether the women who reported sexual assaults had the experiences while serving in active duty. Even so, the higher rates reported by veterans put the onus on the military to take additional steps of treatment and prevention, Ehlinger said.

“That needs to be addressed,” he said. “We need to know more about that data – when it happened, how it happened, who the perpetrators are. … I think the military also needs to look at that as a significant issue to deal with.”

College-going female veterans also reported higher incidences of domestic violence than their female classmates. Nearly half of those surveyed – 46.4 percent – reported such abuse, compared with 37.8 percent of women overall.

To the surprise of researchers, veterans in college were also less likely to have insurance. The differences were particularly stark for female veterans, 18.4 percent of whom were uninsured, compared with 12.4 percent for women overall. The difference for males was not statistically significant, although 18.6 percent of male veterans said they were uninsured.

Despite some notable differences, college-going veterans are more like their non-veteran counterparts than not. The populations have similar rates of alcohol consumption, for instance, although the rates of both groups are higher than most in higher education would wish to see. Of those surveyed, 39.1 of veterans engaged in high-risk drinking -- five or more drinks in one sitting -- compared to 36.8 percent for students overall.

Ehlinger said he plans to continue to study veterans, lamenting a dearth of hard data about a group that will be increasingly part of the fabric of higher education. At the very least, however, the new report will give college officials an early sense of what to expect.

“It’s a population that is going to be showing up on our door,” he said. “They have every right to an education. The GI Bill is a great thing for society … We have an opportunity to take a whole new set of folks and provide them post-secondary education, which is only going to be a benefit to society.”

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