Importance: The long-term course of readjustment problems in military personnel has not been evaluated in a nationally representative sample. The National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS) is a congressionally mandated assessment of Vietnam veterans who underwent previous assessment in the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS).
Objective: To determine the prevalence, course, and comorbidities of war-zone posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) across a 25-year interval.
Design, setting, and participants: The NVVLS survey consisted of a self-report health questionnaire (n = 1409), a computer-assisted telephone survey health interview (n = 1279), and a telephone clinical interview (n = 400) in a representative national sample of veterans who served in the Vietnam theater of operations (theater veterans) from July 3, 2012, through May 17, 2013. Of 2348 NVVRS participants, 1920 were alive at the outset of the NVVLS, and 81 died during recruitment; 1450 of the remaining 1839 (78.8%) participated in at least 1 NVVLS study phase. Data analysis was performed from May 18, 2013, through January 9, 2015, with further analyses continued through April 13, 2015.
Main outcomes and measures: Study instruments included the Mississippi Scale for Combat-Related PTSD, PTSD Checklist for DSM-IV supplemented with PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 items (PCL-5+), Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-5 (CAPS-5), and Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV, Nonpatient Version.
Results: Among male theater veterans, we estimated a prevalence (95% CI) of 4.5% (1.7%-7.3%) based on CAPS-5 criteria for a current PTSD diagnosis; 10.8% (6.5%-15.1%) based on CAPS-5 full plus subthreshold PTSD; and 11.2% (8.3%-14.2%) based on PCL-5+ criteria for current war-zone PTSD. Among female veterans, estimates were 6.1% (1.8%-10.3%), 8.7% (3.8%-13.6%), and 6.6% (3.5%-9.6%), respectively. The PCL-5+ prevalence (95% CI) of current non-war-zone PTSD was 4.6% (2.6%-6.6%) in male and 5.1% (2.3%-8.0%) in female theater veterans. Comorbid major depression occurred in 36.7% (95% CI, 6.2%-67.2%) of veterans with current war-zone PTSD. With regard to the course of PTSD, 16.0% of theater veterans reported an increase and 7.6% reported a decrease of greater than 20 points in Mississippi Scale for Combat-Related PTSD symptoms. The prevalence (95% CI) of current PCL-5+-derived PTSD in study respondents was 1.2% (0.0%-3.0%) for male and 3.9% (0.0%-8.1%) for female Vietnam veterans.
Conclusions and relevance: Approximately 271,000 Vietnam theater veterans have current full PTSD plus subthreshold war-zone PTSD, one-third of whom have current major depressive disorder, 40 or more years after the war. These findings underscore the need for mental health services for many decades for veterans with PTSD symptoms.