Alair MacLean: The lifelong effects of war on veterans

As many studies have reported, veterans returning from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq often suffer from poor psychological health. Yet although the public tends to discriminate against people with mental illness, war veterans get a pass. A “support the troops” mentality gives them what Alair MacLean calls “symbolic capital,” a benefit that outweighs the effect of stereotypes on discrimination.

MacLean, associate professor of sociology at WSU Vancouver, reports these findings in a recent paper, “Coming Home: Attitudes toward U.S. Veterans Returning from Iraq,” published in the journal Social Problems in February 2014. The paper is one of more than two dozen that constitute MacLean’s prolific output on the subject of veterans and how war affects their lives.

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To investigate public attitudes toward returning Iraq veterans, MacLean collaborated with Meredith Kleykamp, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. In addition to “Coming Home,” they have several articles currently under review or in process, along with another collaborator, Rob Warren, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, looking at veterans in the labor market. MacLean has also collaborated with economist Ryan Edwards of the City University of New York on veterans’ health issues.

MacLean has been studying the effects of war on returning veterans for 15 years. She started at the behest of her doctoral advisor at the University of Wisconsin, who suggested she look into the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has survey data going back to the late 1950s. One group that had not been studied much were men who had served in the military.

Since completing her dissertation, MacLean has drawn on the Wisconsin data and other studies to explore the effects of war on health, socioeconomic status, income and labor participation among vets, as well as public opinion about them.

One surprising finding is the focus of a paper in process, which looks at the change over time in vets’ outcomes in the labor force since World War II. “Our preliminary finding, regardless of when they served, is that vets are more likely than non-vets to be unemployed,” MacLean said. “But when they work, World War II vets earn more than non-vets. Yet that is not the case for Vietnam vets and those who served later.”

She will explore reasons for that difference in a follow-up study. One notable difference is that earlier vets were mostly draftees, whereas vets who joined starting in 1973 volunteered to do so.

Because of her expertise, MacLean has been invited to serve on two national committees that have recommended research for the U.S. Congress and military. She has recently begun serving on a third such committee.

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