vertical spacer
RTI Stories

RTI Surveys the Military: Drug Abuse and PTSD

"An objective quantification of the severity of veterans’ readjustment problems"

In the 1980s, RTI conducted the most far-reaching and ambitious mental-health epidemiologic study ever attempted on any population up to that time. The focus was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological illness that can result from exposure to stressful situations, including combat. RTI staff managed every phase of the four-year National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, which involved 140 survey specialists and statisticians and 30 mental health professionals who conducted more than 3,000 interviews with Vietnam veterans across the country. "We wanted an objective quantification of the extent and severity of veterans' readjustment problems following their traumatic experiences in the war," says project director James Chromy.

The broad conclusion of the study was that most Vietnam veterans had adjusted reasonably well to civilian life, while 15 percent suffered from PTSD. "This was groundbreaking work that led to the publication of a book, Trauma and the Vietnam War Generation, authored by several researchers on the team, not to mention enormous public policy attention," Chromy says. RTI's research ultimately contributed to the development of improved mental health services for veterans afflicted with PTSD—an issue that became of critical importance in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another complex study, the Worldwide Survey of Alcohol and Nonmedical Drug Use Among Military Personnel, was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. This project was prompted by a fatal plane crash aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in May of 1981; autopsies of six military personnel aboard the plane revealed traces of marijuana in their blood.

In the first part of the survey, RTI researchers interviewed nearly 22,000 people from all four branches of service at 21 stateside and 37 overseas military installations; more than 17,000 service members were queried in the second part. The first survey indicated that drug use in the military had declined from 27 percent in 1980 to 19 percent in 1982, while the second survey noted a more substantive reduction in drug use, to as low as 9 percent.

However, both surveys found that alcohol abuse in the military was a more serious problem than previously thought, with 20 percent of respondents reporting "heavy drinking." These findings supported the continuation of military programs to prevent and treat drug abuse and alcoholism; in subsequent surveys by RTI, drug use and alcohol consumption rates in the military continued to fall, to 3 percent and 15 percent, respectively, by 1998.