Iraqi War Vets Face Mental Challenges
Study Shows Mild Problems With Memory and Concentration
WebMD News Archive
Aug. 1, 2006 -- U.S. soldiers who serve in Iraq can expect to experience
subtle mental and emotional challenges when they return home, even if these
issues don't rise to the level of posttraumatic stress, a new study shows.
Veteran's Administration and U.S. Army researchers documented what they
characterized as "mild" problems with memory, concentration, and stress
in active duty Army soldiers who had just returned from a year-long tour in
The study is the first to scientifically assess mental functioning in the
same group of soldiers prior to and immediately after a tour of duty in a war
As a result, it offers a unique perspective on the short-term impact of war
service on a soldiers' mental health,
researcher Jennifer J. Vasterling, PhD, tells WebMD. The soldiers received the
same battery of tests before leaving for Iraq and within three months of
returning to the U.S.
"The testing showed mild impairment in memory performance and ability to
pay attention, and the deployed soldiers reported feeling more tension and
stress," Vasterling says. "But for the most part, these issues did not
have a big impact on their daily lives."
More Stress, Quicker Reactions
A total of 654 male and female active duty Army soldiers who served in Iraq
and 307 soldiers with similar characteristics who did not serve overseas were
recruited for the study, published in the Aug. 2 issue of the The Journal
of the American Medical Association.
The deployed soldiers were first examined before deployment (April-December
2003) and within 2.5 months after returning from deployment (January-May 2005).
Almost all reported having been in potentially life-threatening situations,
such as combat missions or transportation convoys. More than half (55%)
reported having witnessed a fellow soldier being seriously injured or
At each exam, all the participating soldiers took the standardized
performance tests, which were designed to measure various mental functioning
tasks, including short-term memory, ability to concentrate, and tension and
The soldiers who served in Iraq exhibited "mild neurospsychological
compromise" in these areas. But the deployed soldiers also tended to have
faster reaction times, suggesting that they were still experiencing a
"fight or flight" mental arousal commonly seen in war zone
"Clearly improved reaction time is a good adaptive behavior for a
soldier serving in a war zone," Vasterling says. "The Army even has a
term for this. They call it battlemind."
Cause for Concern?
The researchers will continue to follow the soldiers to determine if the
mental function differences persist.
In an editorial accompanying the study, medical psychiatrists Matthew
Hotopf, PhD, and Simon Wessely, FMedSci, weighed in on the issue. Both have
done extensive research on post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) among
They wrote that while the subtle mental changes outlined in the study bear
some similarities to PTSD, they might also be considered perfectly normal
coping behaviors. Longer follow-up of the soldiers in the study should help
determine if the reactions are normal or cause for concern, they concluded.