By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
NEW YORK, June 8 (Reuters Life!) - Women soldiers are as resilient in handling combat stress as the men they serve with, according to a new study of U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They suffered from comparable levels of combat-stress and post-deployment mental health problems as their male counterparts.
"Contrary to popular belief women who go to war respond to combat trauma much like their male counterparts," said Dawne Vogt, of the Veterans Administration National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the lead author of the study.
"And with the unpredictable guerilla tactics of modern warfare, barring women from ground combat is less meaningful."
She added that the findings, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, ran contrary to popular belief and previous research. They are also important following calls for the U.S. government to reverse its policy that bars women from serving in combat units.
Women have served in the military in combat support roles such as medics. Last year there were just over 200,000 women soldiers out of a total active duty force of 1.4 million soldiers.
Vogt and her team studied Department of Defense survey data from 595 service members, including 340 women, who were on average about three years younger than the men and more likely to belong to a racial or ethnic minority.
Stress measures included receiving hostile fire, firing a weapon, witnessing combat casualties, fearing for personal safety and day-to-day living in austere conditions.
Vogt said that one possible explanation for the surprise findings was that "women are getting training that's comparable to men."
Another was that combat was the "great equalizer" of risk.
"Combat might overwhelm any difference we might see," she said.
As expected, the study showed that men reported more exposure to combat and difficult living situations, but that the difference was minor.
Men and women experienced very similar post-deployment levels of depression and mental health issues, but men were found to abuse substances slightly more.
As of 2009, when all the survey participants had returned from deployment, over 750 women had been killed or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the study.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney; firstname.lastname@example.org; For the latest Reuters lifestyle news see: http://www.reuters.com/news/lifestyle))