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Money troubles tied to reintegration problems

thumbnail U.S. Navy Yeoman 1st Class Jorge Ulloa greets his wife, Laidy, during a homecoming ceremony for his ship's crew in 2009. A new study by VA researchers and federal colleagues has described how Veterans' financial status and money-management skills impact their reintegration after deployments. (Photo by MC2 Gary Granger Jr.)

A study by researchers from VA, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Education has found a strong link between financial well-being and the ability of new Veterans to reintegrate after deployment.

According to Eric Elbogen, PhD, a researcher at the Durham VA Medical Center, "A vital challenge faced by Veterans returning home from combat is achieving financial well-being. Some struggle to afford basic needs."

The study's results appeared in June in Military Medicine. The researchers looked at 1,388 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans who completed a national survey on postdeployment adjustment. The results showed that Veterans with a probable diagnosis of major depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, or traumatic brain injury were significantly likely to be in financial difficulty.

The researchers found that whether they had a psychiatric diagnosis or not, Veterans who reported having enough money to cover their basic needs were significantly less likely than others to have postdeployment adjustment problems, such as being arrested, becoming homeless, developing problems with substance abuse, or exhibiting suicidal or aggressive behaviors.

In the study, the researchers asked about employment, annual income, and unsecured debt, excluding mortgages and car loans. They also asked whether the Veterans had enough money to make ends meet and cover basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, transportation, social activities, and medical care.

The study also included questions on whether the participants had written a bad check in the past year, fallen victim to a money scam, had their lights or power shut off, or been referred to a collection agency.

Along with the finance questions, the researchers asked Veterans if they had been arrested, engaged in suicidal behavior or had suicidal thoughts, or been homeless within the past year. Screening tests were used to measure drug and alcohol misuse and episodes of violence.

The researchers also gathered data on age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, income, education, branch of service, time since last deployment, and combat exposure.

The team learned that during the past year, 13 percent of study participants lost a job, 15 percent wrote bad checks, 21 percent were referred to collection agencies, 4 percent had been victims of money scams, 5 percent had had their utilities or power shut off, and 10 percent reported an unsecured debt greater than $40,000.

"We found that Veterans with probable major depressive disorder, PTSD, or TBI were substantially less likely to have money to cover expenses for clothing and social activities than other Veterans," says Elbogen, "and were more than twice as likely to have been referred to a collection agency. We also found that Veterans who were able to meet their basic needs were less likely to be homeless, be arrested, misuse alcohol and drugs, have suicidal thoughts or behaviors, or report acts of physical aggression—and that Veterans with low incomes and poor money management skills had the most readjustment problems, while those with high income and good management skills had the fewest."

Interestingly, the study found that Veterans with low incomes but good money-management skills had about the same level of postdeployment adjustment problems as those with high income and poor money management skills. "This emphasizes the dual importance of income and financial management skills," says Elbogen.

The study did not resolve whether money problems caused postdeployment adjustment issues, or whether postdeployment issues led to money problems. The authors point out that PTSD could interfere with work attendance and reduce stable employment—and depression, suicidal thoughts, and cognitive trouble can also increase the likelihood of decreased productivity and job performance, and job loss.

"It's also possible," notes Elbogen, "that financial strain and postdeployment stress are mutually reinforcing and can create a downward spiral."

He and his coauthors also point out that while Veterans returning from deployment face the same financial challenges as other civilians, many may experience additional financial difficulties related to their combat exposure, military training, service connection, multiple deployments, and war injuries.

"Given these findings," concludes Elbogen, "improved money management appears to be important for successful postdeployment adjustment, particularly for Veterans with psychiatric and cognitive disabilities. Efforts aimed at enhancing financial literacy and promoting meaningful employment may have promise to enhance outcomes and improve quality of life among returning Veterans."

Among the benefits VA provides to returning Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans are five years of cost-free medical care for any condition related to their service in the Iraq/Afghanistan theater; one-time dental care; readjustment counseling and outreach support at their local Vet Center; support for continuing education goals; and help finding a job. Visit www.oefoif.va.gov for more details.


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