PTSD Overseas: Comparing Iraq and Afghanistan

Distraught Female SoldierServing in the military can be a stressful and dangerous job, and working overseas can only increase the stresses and hazards involved in military work. Naturally, military employment in war zones or in other hazardous areas results in greater numbers of trauma and injury to stationed troops, but not all areas put military workers in the same amount of risk. For example, while it is estimated that approximately 14% of service members deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these rates can differ when comparing service members who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. However, in order to get a better understanding of the differences between the two, it is important to get an understanding of what PTSD entails.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When talking about post-traumatic stress disorder, it is important to understand that, while it may be initiated by a variety of events, PTSD generally develops after an individual experiences a traumatic event. Even though there are several different types of incidents that may produce fear or shock, traumatic events that lead to PTSD typically involve a shocking and terrifying incident. During these traumatic events, an individual may feel as though his life or the lives of others are in danger and may even feel as though he has lost all control over what is happening.

Even though a stress-related reaction is common after encountering a traumatic event, not all events lead to PTSD. While there is no way to pinpoint who will or will not get PTSD after a traumatic event, there are a few factors which can indicate the likelihood a person will suffer from PTSD. Such factors include, but not limited to:

  • The intensity and length of the trauma
  • The individual’s proximity to the trauma
  • Whether there was any injury sustained from the trauma
  • The intensity of the individual’s reaction to the trauma
  • The level of help and support received after the event

Types of Trauma 

While there are many different types of trauma that can lead to post traumatic stress disorder, there are several other factors that soldiers serving overseas may experience that other individuals may not experience. Due to the nature of a service member’s work, military personnel working overseas are more likely to be involved in a variety of hazardous environments, and will likely be subject to various types of trauma. Examples of traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Combat exposure
  • Terrorist attack
  • Violence and abuse
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Automobile accidents
  • Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods, or other natural disasters
  • Being shot at
  • Receiving rocket or mortar fire


Just as there can be a variety of events that can cause PTSD, there are also a number of ways individuals can experience or display the effects of PTSD. While most of the symptoms are triggered by a specific event, they generally relate in some way to the initial traumatic event.

Symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Reliving the event
  • Having continuous nightmares
  • Avoiding situations that are similar to the event
  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
  • Feeling jittery or irritable

These symptoms can occur at any time, and are usually triggered by familiar sensations such as a noise, smell, or sight. In some cases these symptoms may not even begin immediately after the traumatic event. In addition, other cases of PTSD may even come and go over several years.   

Comparing Iraq and Afghanistan

While many sources that investigate the effects of war on soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to discuss the two locations as though they were one place, combat life is not exactly the same in Iraq as it is in Afghanistan. In fact, according to a study performed in 2003, it was estimated that soldiers stationed in Iraq were much more likely to see or experience traumatic events than soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. For example, while it was estimated that approximately 95 percent of soldiers in Iraq had seen a dead body during their time overseas, only 35 percent of soldiers in Afghanistan were estimated to have seen a dead body. Similarly, while it was estimated that approximately 86 percent of soldiers stationed in Iraq in 2003 knew someone killed or seriously injured, only about 46 percent of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan experienced knowing someone that had been killed or seriously injured.

As soldiers stationed in Iraq are more likely to experience wartime stressors, such as seeing dead bodies or being shot at, it is only natural that soldiers stationed in Iraq would be more likely to suffer from PTSD than those who have served in Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that approximately 11 percent of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, whereas 20 percent of those soldiers who had served in Iraq suffered from PTSD.