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Profile of Personnel Deployed to Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Citation: MacLean MB, Campbell L, O’Connor T, Van Til L, Poirier A, Sudom K, Dursun S and Pedlar D. Profile of Personnel Deployed to Afghanistan. Veterans Affairs Canada, Research Directorate Technical Report. 14 December, 2015, p 20.

Objective

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has participated in six operations in Afghanistan since it began in 2001. As of March 2013, almost 42,000 CAF personnel have deployed to Afghanistan. The last operation ended in March 2014. In order to support Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) and Department of National Defence (DND) strategic planning and further research, this study examines the characteristics of the cohort of CAF serving members and Veterans who have deployed to Afghanistan and their use of VAC disability and rehabilitation programs.

Method

This study involved:

  • a review of the literature related to CAF members who served during the Afghanistan conflict;
  • gathering of historical disability benefit program participation information related to past conflicts (World War I, World War II, Korean War, Gulf War) and the post-Korean War CAF in general;
  • record linkage of DND and VAC administrative datasets; and
  • analysis of data from the 2010 Survey on Transition to Civilian Life (LASS) linked to DND administrative data on Afghanistan service.

Results

A cohort of 41,600 CAF personnel deployed to Afghanistan from January 31, 2001, to March 31, 2013, as derived from DND administrative data. The majority (79%) of this cohort were still-serving in the military as of January 2013. A small part of this cohort (4%) were reported as casualties and 13% were in receipt of disability benefits related to Afghanistan.

Since 2001, the number of post-Korean War personnel and Veterans receiving disability benefits from VAC has more than tripled, yet Afghanistan service has only accounted for about 10% of this increase. However, most of those deployed in support of the Afghanistan mission remain in service, and as they release in increasing numbers, VAC can expect additional increases in disability benefit clients. Furthermore, as was the case for Veterans of past conflicts, it is quite possible that Veterans of the Afghanistan conflict will continue to approach VAC for disability benefits and other services for many years down the road, long after the conflict has ended.

Afghanistan Veterans were more likely to report difficult adjustment to civilian life and poorer mental health compared to other Veterans covered in LASS 2010. Also, Afghanistan disability benefit clients had higher prevalence of service-related psychiatric and musculoskeletal conditions and higher disability assessments compared to other post-Korean war clients.

The literature review suggested further research in several areas. The 13 studies included in the review covered the areas of post-deployment reintegration, operational tempo, mental health, mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), and causes of death during deployment. All of these studies have involved serving personnel – no previous literature has followed members after release from the military. Since examination of LASS data found higher rates of difficult adjustment and poorer mental health compared to other Veterans, it follows that their future health status and needs are likely to also differ. Future studies could follow the Afghanistan cohort as they release from the military and as they age. Longitudinal studies that follow Veterans over time would enable evaluation of programs and services aimed at improving transition outcomes and supporting Veterans over the lifecourse.

Conclusion

Existing literature focused on CAF personnel who served during the Afghanistan conflict and did not reflect post-release experiences. Indeed, the majority of the Afghanistan cohort were still serving (79%) and have yet to transition to civilian life. In this study, Afghanistan Veterans were found to be worse off than other post-Korean War Veterans in the areas of adjustment to civilian life and mental health. Participation in VAC disability benefits is expected to rise again as more members release. Experience from past conflicts suggests that Afghanistan Veterans will come forward for disability benefits over a long period of time. Findings from this study can inform both strategic planning and further research. This study included personnel who served in Afghanistan up to March 2013. As the last operation ended in March 2014, a nominal roll for Afghanistan should be completed.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Gerry Toner, Statistics Directorate; Teresa Pound, Strategic Policy and Margaret Boswall, Acting DG, Health Professionals for providing comments and suggestions and Jill Sweet, Research Project Officer, for providing the Survey on Transition to Civilian Life data.

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