Long-term disability associated with war-related experience among Vietnam veterans

Clarke, P. M., Gregory, R., & Salomon, J. A. (2015). Long-term disability associated with war-related experience among Vietnam veterans: Retrospective cohort study. Medical care, 53, 401-408.


Background: Recent combat operations have involved large numbers of personnel. Long-term health effects of military deployment remain largely unknown.

Objectives: To examine patterns and trends in long-term disability among combat veterans and to relate disability to aspects of wartime experience.

Method: A total of 60,228 Australian military personnel deployed between 1962 and 1975 during the Vietnam War, and 82,877 military personnel who were not deployed overseas. Accepted physician-assessed disability claims were evaluated over follow-up periods up to 50 years after deployment, and compared with age-matched controls. Multivariable analysis was used to examine differences by service branch, rank, age, and deployment duration.

Results: The steepest rise in disability incidence was observed among Vietnam veterans starting in the 1990s, around 20-30 years after deployment for most veterans. After 1994, when Statements of Principles were introduced to guide evaluation of disability claims, the hazard ratio for disability incidence was 1.53 (95% confidence interval, 1.32-1.77) compared with the prior period. By January 2011, after an average follow-up of 42.5 years, 69.7% (95% confidence interval, 69.4%-70.1%) of veterans had at least 1 war-related disability. Many veterans had multiple disabilities, with leading causes being eye and ear disorders (48.0%), mental health conditions (47.9%), and musculoskeletal disorders (18.4%). For specific categories of disability, relative risks for accepted claims among veterans compared with controls were highest for mental health disorders, at 22.9 (21.9-24.0) and lowest for injuries, at 1.5 (1.4-1.6) with a relative risk for any disability of 3.7 (3.7-3.8). Veterans with service of >1 year were 2.5 (2.2-2.7) times more likely to have a mental health disability than those who served <100 days, and 2.3 (2.1-2.5) times more likely to have other disabilities.

Conclusions: Long-term effects of deployment into military conflicts are substantial, and likelihood of war-related disability is associated with service history. If similar patterns follow from more recent conflicts, significant additional resources will be needed to prevent and treat long-term health conditions among veterans.

DOI/Australian-New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry