Men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008 experienced very similar levels of combat-related stress and post-deployment mental health impacts during the first year following return from deployment, a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology said.
"Contrary to popular belief, women who go to war respond to combat trauma much like their male counterparts," said lead author Dawne Vogt, of the Veterans Administration National Center for PTSD and Boston University School of Medicine.
As of 2009, more than 750 women had been wounded or killed in action during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the study said.
Researchers used stress measures that included exposure to combat involving firing a weapon, being fired on, and witnessing injury and death; experiencing consequences of combat, such as observing or handling human remains and dealing with detainees; enduring difficult living situations in the war zone; and fearing for one's safety and well-being.
Men, as expected, reported more exposure to combat and battle aftermath, as well as difficult living conditions, just based on the number of each gender serving in the military operations.
"The fact that these differences were relatively small, however, suggests that women's exposure to these stressors in [Iraq and Afghanistan] may be, on average, only slightly lower than men's exposure on average," the study said.
Few gender differences were reported in post-deployment mental health, the researchers said.
The findings are particularly significant given recent calls for the Pentagon to reverse its longstanding policy barring women from ground combat, Vogt said.