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Publication Briefs

Study Suggests OEF/OIF Veterans with PTSD and Associated High Irritability May Be at Increased Risk of Criminal Arrest

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine reported that criminal justice involvement is one of the most significant problems for Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans. Moreover, many Veterans have returned home with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), which have been linked to incarceration, aggression, or violence among Veterans from previous conflicts. Although criminal behavior in Veterans has been cited as a growing problem, little is known about why some Veterans are at increased risk of criminal justice involvement. This study tested the hypothesis that anger and irritability associated with PTSD and/or TBI is related to criminal behavior. Investigators conducted a national survey based on a random sample of Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans. In total, 1,388 veterans (male = 930; female = 458) completed the survey, representing all 50 states and all military branches. The cohort was surveyed from 7/09 through 5/10, using online (80%) and print (20%) survey versions. Investigators assessed demographics, military service (e.g., number of deployments, combat exposure), and clinical variables (e.g., substance use disorders, PTSD, TBI). Criminal justice involvement was measured by asking Veterans, "Have you been in jail or prison since deployment?" A positive response prompted specification of incarceration length and clarification as to whether it involved a violent or non-violent crime. Variables known to be linked to criminal behavior and recidivism also were examined, such as witnessing family violence and previous criminal arrests.


  • Of the Veterans in this study, 9% reported arrests since returning home from military service. Most were associated with non-violent criminal behavior resulting in incarcaration for less than 2 weeks.
  • In multivariate analyses, number of arrests was found to be significantly related to younger age, male gender, having witnessed family violence, prior history of arrest, alcohol/drug misuse, and PTSD with high anger/irritability. Arrests were not significantly related to combat exposure or TBI.
  • Veterans with PTSD who reported very frequent symptoms of anger and irritability may be at increased risk of engaging in criminal behavior. However, PTSD with negative affect was less strongly related to criminal justice involvement than were other civilian risk factors such as younger age, male gender, witnessing family violence, prior criminal record, and substance misuse.


  • Findings are based on self-report.
  • Given the nature of cross-sectional data, causal interpretation of results is limited.

Drs. Elbogen, Straits-Troster, Wagner, and Beckham are part of VA Mid-Atlantic Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center, Durham, NC; Dr. Beckham also is part of HSR&D Center for Health Services Research in Primary Care, Durham.

PubMed Logo Elbogen E, Johnson S, Newton V, Straits-Troster K, Vasterling J, Wagner H, and Beckham J. Criminal Justice Involvement, Trauma, and Negative Affect in Iraq and Afghanistan War Era Veterans. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology October 1, 2012;e-pub ahead of print.

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HSR requires notification by HSR-funded investigators about all articles accepted for publication. These journal articles are reviewed by HSR and publication briefs or summaries are written for a select number of articles that are then forwarded to VHA Central Office leadership to keep them informed about important findings or information. Articles to be summarized are selected by HSR based on timeliness of the findings, interest of leadership, or potential impact on the organization. Publication briefs are written for only a small number of HSR published articles. Visit the HSR citations database for a complete listing of HSR articles and presentations.

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