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Researching Veterans Issues

Various studies at UNLV explore how female veterans respond to stress, how faculty view student veterans, and what challenges lesbian soldiers face.
Research  |  Jun 13, 2014  |  By Brian Sodoma
UNLV professor and neuroscience researcher Laurel Pritchard. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

It's hard for civilians to truly understand a military veteran's experience. But that isn't stopping a few UNLV researchers from at least asking a questions to help them better understand some of the unique challenges today's veterans face.

Female vets

UNLV professor and neuroscience researcher Laurel Pritchard and psychology doctoral student Meghan Pierce recently studied posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in female veterans. The small study involved 52 women, both with and without PTSD symptoms, and compared the results to past findings involving male veterans.

Subjects were asked questions about the severity of their PTSD symptoms, then put through psycho-social stress situations -- one similar to a mock job interview and another involving some mental arithmetic in front of a panel of people in white lab coats. Saliva tests for measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol were collected before and after the stress tests.

Pritchard was somewhat surprised by the study's findings. Regardless of PTSD symptom severity, she found veterans had lower cortisol levels than nonvets. "We're wondering if there's something about the experience of being a veteran that sets you up psychologically to have an abnormal stress response and puts you at risk of PTSD," she said.

Pritchard and Pierce are in the process of evaluating the data for future publication. They hope to expand the study to also look at links between this potentially adverse stress response and its impact on cognitive ability.

Veterans in the Classroom

Howard Gordon, a UNLV professor of career and technical education, would like to learn more about faculty and staff interactions with student veterans. He is surveying more than 500 faculty and staff at UNLV and CSN this year.

The surveys ask academic faculty questions about classroom environment, whether faculty are aware of a student veteran in class, and, if so, how faculty became aware of a student veteran's experience. Faculty and staff are also asked about personal opinions of veterans and nonveterans, thoughts on whether UNLV should grant transfer credits for knowledge acquired in military experience, and numerous other views on how veterans should be treated during their educational experience.

"I think we're going to learn that there are faculty who are not aware they have military students in their classrooms," said Gordon. The survey might also uncover potential problem areas in terms of cultural sensitivity, he said.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Graduate assistant Sarah Mount and Sarah Steelman have surveyed lesbian service women and found that even with the 2010 repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, there are plenty of barriers to accessing mental health services for this population. Their work is overseen by professor Katherine Hertlein.

The survey of 42 women in service revealed that some are still concerned about biases. This prevents them from sharing more with mental health practitioners. And they are concerned about the competency of military mental health practitioners in dealing with the issues in their community. "It's enough concern to keep them away from treatment. Or they feel more comfortable seeking an outside provider," Hertlein added. "We're talking about a small population, but they have some real service needs that aren't being tended to."

A follow up survey of military mental health practitioners is next, said Hertlein. The survey will attempt to gauge attitudes toward the LGBT community.