Women Serving in Vietnam: Healthier & Happier, 1990s Data Shows

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Among the conclusions from a newly-released study focusing on women's military service during the Vietnam War – both in uniform and as civilians – one is rather eye-catching: That longer service corresponded to greater happiness and life satisfaction decades later. 

The headline of the press release that introduces the study reads, "Career military women who served in Vietnam: Happier and in better health than all women."

On a visceral level it's a conclusion that's striking, partly because the concepts of happiness and war don't usually go together. The headline generates interest and curiosity, so one is drawn to take a closer look.

Yet since that's quite a statement, to the casual observer there's also a possible countervailing force at play: the perception that the study's main conclusion could be confused with promoting military life. Whether true or not – and to be clear, we're not alleging anything untoward – that possibility invites a close reading with a skeptical eye.

In doing so, however, we found a separate issue about timing, pertaining to the study's publication, which makes the reader wonder further. A closer look – at the study itself, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine – Population Health – invites questions about the data, specifically, when they were gathered and why the results generated from them weren't released sooner.

The study, conducted by researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and other important institutions (named below), used previously-collected data from 1,285 subjects who participated in a survey by mail. (Not email, U.S. mail.) No in-person interviews were conducted.   

Of the positive conclusions, one was that "48 percent of career military women were very happy compared to 38 percent of women in the general population, and of better than average physical and mental health," according to the release issued Monday by the university.

However, the survey data was collected 18 years ago (1998-99), a fact that Columbia didn't include in its release, and one quite surprising to find while reading the study. So we went directly to senior author Jeanne Mager Stellman, Ph.D., and asked her about it. 

"The data were collected as part of a different study," said Dr. Stellman in her email response, "to confirm whether measures we used for Vietnam male veterans were reliable in women and minorities. We reported on that (they were) but didn't do more with the women's data until I developed this productive relationship with the group in Boston," meaning those she collaborated with at the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, the Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, the VA Boston Healthcare System and the Boston University School of Medicine. Explaining the time gap until the publish date, "There is always more data to analyze than people and resources available to work on it." 

While the study was not one-sided and did include adverse results of women's service – which during the Vietnam War period was predominately nursing roles and Red Cross participation – the benefits of service were highlighted. 

The "results suggest that a military career – which by military rules in force during the Vietnam era, precluded a woman from typical wife and mother roles – afforded women a meaningful experience that continued to positively impact their emotional well-being, even decades after the war," said Dr. Stellman in the release. "About 265,000 women served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam Era, with as many as 11,000 deployed to Vietnam but not formally assigned combat roles."

Regarding marriage and motherhood, Dr. Stellman said the research showed that, "Both military and civilian women who served in Vietnam, regardless of whether they continued to make the military their career, were less likely to have married or have had children than women from the general population," and that "career military women who never had children also reported being happier than the average American woman."

As is often the case, the American military is currently looking to recruit soldiers and a recent policy change includes moving and encouraging women into roles that were once reserved solely for men. A skeptic might believe that the timing of this study's release and the current recruitment goals are related, especially as it relates to generating interest among women to enlist. But the forthcoming Dr. Stellman, who proved helpful clarifying and providing context about the study, clearly and convincingly put that matter to rest.

"The positive aspects of the service in this paper are interesting and 'real' — our other papers show the negative aspects quite clearly," she wrote in her email response. "I frankly hadn’t at all thought that [the military] would 'use' the data until you brought it up – and no I didn’t know there was a push to recruit women."

The fact that the data was collected some time ago was intriguing, but it didn't make them out of date – an interesting revelation that emerged from taking a closer look at this study.

"I support and applaud each generation developing its own frames of reference," wrote Dr. Stellman in email, "but we, as a species, seem to be inevitably doomed to making the same mistakes over and over because of failure to reflect upon and interpret the past adequately."