VANCOUVER – Americans often view the plight of their country’s combat-weary veterans as similar to the stark and often iconic scenes from photos reflecting foreign battlefields over the decades.
But recent WSU research suggests that, for many U.S. veterans, combat is a defining experience that often sets the trajectory of the balance of their lives.
In research published this week in the American Sociological Review, Alair MacLean, an assistant professor with the department of sociology at WSU Vancouver, reports that, in comparison to both nonveterans and veterans who never engaged in combat, Americans returning from combat face significant socioeconomic challenges, as evidenced by consistently higher rates of disability and unemployment.
“Veterans who saw combat started their work lives at a relative disadvantage that they were unable to overcome,” MacLean writes of her research. “Soldiers exposed to combat were more likely than non-combat veterans to be disabled and unemployed in their mid-20s and to remain so throughout their worklife.
Using data taken from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal survey of families and individuals which has been conducted annually since 1968, MacLean studied the characteristics of both veterans and nonveterans who would have been between the ages of 25 and 55 in any year between 1968 and 2003. The sample included men who served or otherwise would have become eligible for military service during World War II, as well as during the Korean, post-Korean, Viet Nam, and post-Viet Nam eras.
MacLean said the rate at which both nonveterans and noncombat veterans reported themselves to be disabled remained fairly consistent at roughly 10 percent of the population in each of the years reviewed by the study.
“Compared with these two groups of men, combat veterans were disabled at relatively high rates,” she says. “In most survey years, they were more likely than nonveterans to be disabled. In all survey years, they were more likely than noncombat veterans to be disabled.”
Additionally, MacLean found that combat veterans were more likely than the other groups to become disabled over time.
“In 1968, slightly over 10 percent (of combat veterans) were disabled. This increased to over 20 percent in 2003,” she says.
And while combat veterans tended to be employed in the initial years of the surveyed period at higher rates than the other two groups, MacLean says they reported significantly higher levels of unemployment than either non-veterans or non-combat veterans in most years after 1975.
“What the data suggests is that combat may scar veterans who experience it, leading them to be less able to find work between the ages of 25 and 55, the prime working years,” she says.