Health and Social Outcomes of Veterans Deployed in Combat Zones

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In the two decades since US service members first deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the suicide rate for veterans, adjusted for age and gender, has risen nearly twice as quickly as that for nonveterans. Inflation-adjusted disability compensation per veteran has more than quintupled, reaching an average of $4,700 in 2021.

A new study using data on the cohorts of military recruits between 2001 and 2011 challenges the widely held belief that these developments, and other measures of decline in the long-term well-being of veterans, are due to combat deployment.

A study finds little evidence to connect hazardous combat situations to post-deployment suicide, incarceration, or other outcomes.

In The Effects of Combat Deployments on Veterans’ Outcomes (NBER Working Paper 30622), Jesse M. Bruhn, Kyle Greenberg, Matthew Gudgeon, Evan K. Rose, and Yotam Shem-Tov find little evidence connecting hazardous combat exposure to post-deployment suicide, incarceration, or financial or educational status. They show that combat deployments cannot explain the recent rise in disability compensation or noncombat deaths. Instead, they attribute much of the increase in noncombat deaths among veterans to shifts in demographic and pre-service characteristics of soldiers, and point to policy changes as a possible driver of rising disability payments.

The study finds that a typical combat deployment of 10 months increases the likelihood of a veteran receiving disability payments eight years later by 9.4 percentage points. This is relative to a base of 37 percent for all veterans, and amounts to an annual payment increase of $2,602 (in 2021 dollars) per person.

The average combat deployment increases the likelihood that a soldier dies within eight years by 0.5 percentage points, or 30 percent. Of those deaths, 91 percent result from combat injuries. The study finds no statistically significant evidence that deployment results in an increase in deaths of despair, such as by suicide or through substance abuse, or that it affects misconduct, incarceration, or credit scores. Deployment appears to have a small positive effect on enrollment in college in the early post-deployment years, but that effect disappears within eight years and there is no discernible effect on the attainment of college degrees.

Deployments in brigades that suffered high casualty rates are associated, as would be expected, with significant increases in disability payments and trauma, but are not tied to higher noncombat deaths or other adverse outcomes.

The researchers attempt to capture as many factors as possible that could explain the rapid rise in disability payments and the decline in veteran well-being. They combine information on deployment rates and combat intensity with data on age, race, sex, standardized test scores, moral character waivers, marital status, and educational attainment at the time of assignment to assess the extent to which changes in these characteristics across cohorts can explain the concerning trends in veteran outcomes.

The researchers find that while increased combat exposure can explain part of the rise in disability for earlier cohorts, it cannot account for the continued rise in disability among post-2011 cohorts. The recent rise in disability likely stems from changes in the compensation system that expedited the claims process, reduced evidentiary standards, and better informed veterans about benefits. The researchers find that 32 percent of the variation in noncombat deaths across cohorts can be explained by observable demographic characteristics, or shifts in who is serving, rather than direct effects of combat.

— Steve Maas