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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sanders’ PTSD Statistic

Sometimes politicians are right, but their campaigns can’t prove it. And we do.

That’s what happened when we decided to take a look at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ talking point that 500,000 veterans came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. His campaign pointed us to a 2013 Senate hearing as its source — a hearing in which a Veterans Affairs official told Sanders that the number was less than half that.

But it wasn’t a case of Sanders exaggerating. We discovered more recent VA reports that put the number with PTSD at about 390,000, and that would only include veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan that sought care at VA facilities. Not all veterans use VA care. Other estimates suggest the total number could be around the 500,000 figure Sanders has been using for the past year.

Sanders, who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination, repeated his claim at a July 2 town hall event in Rochester, Minnesota, (5:30 mark) when he said: “In Iraq and Afghanistan, and I will tell you that I voted against the war in Iraq … it was not just the 6,700 men and women who died in the war. 500,000 — 500,000 came home with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.”

He has used the statistic several times in the past. On Twitter last summer, he said: “Some 500,000 men and women have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD or TBI.” And he made the claim on CNN in October, while mentioning that he was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

In fact, when we inquired about the claim, the Sanders’ campaign sent us a transcript for a March 20, 2013, Senate committee hearing on VA mental health, in which the then-VA under secretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel, told Sanders that “about 119,000 people from the present conflicts” had been diagnosed with PTSD. Petzel said that all told, including veterans from any conflict, the VA had 500,000 under its care with PTSD. He even corrected Sanders, when the senator mistakenly thought the 500,000 figure pertained only to Iraq and Afghanistan. Here’s the exchange:

Chairman Sanders, March 20, 2013: I mentioned in my opening remarks that as we end 10 years of war in Iraq and 11 in Afghanistan or so, the cost of war, I think, is a lot heavier and more tragic than many people realize. So, let me start off with a very simple question. I do not know if you have the answer in front of you. When we are talking about posttraumatic stress disorder and when we are talking about traumatic brain injury, how many human beings are we talking about who are suffering from these illnesses?

Dr. Petzel: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Right now, the VA is taking care of slightly over 500,000 people with posttraumatic stress disorder.

Sanders: Let us stop right there. 500,000 returning soldiers.

Petzel: Correct. Not just returning. This is our whole population, Mr. Chairman.

Sanders: This is not just Iraq and Afghanistan.

Petzel: I was about to get to Iraq.

Sanders: Okay.

Petzel: We have about 119,000 people from the present conflicts that carry the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Sanders then asked about traumatic brain injuries, and Petzel said that the VA had been screening everyone who comes back from a combat situation for the past several years. He said that of the 395,000 people who have been screened, 54,000 had screened positive for possible traumatic brain injury, and 35,000 of those individual had mild to moderate TBI, as determined with “quite sophisticated testing.”

Petzel said the “vast majority” of those 35,000 had been serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, though some were injured in training accidents.

Sanders has claimed that 500,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan had PTSD or TBI, but Petzel’s numbers are less than half of that. That’s the case even if we use the higher 54,000 for “possible” TBI,  along with Petzel’s estimate of 119,000 with PTSD.

We don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of PTSD or its increasing occurrence. A year ago, the Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academies, released a report that said PTSD was “one of the signature injuries of the U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.” It found that the number of veterans with PTSD who sought care in the VA system had more than doubled from 2003 to 2012.

It reiterated the same numbers Petzel used for servicemembers with PTSD using VA services in 2012 (see Table 2-4).

However, when we dug further into this issue, we did find support for Sanders’ now year-old talking point.

When we asked for more recent numbers from the VA, the press office pointed us to a Senate resolution designating June 2015 “National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.” The preamble, for which the VA says it provided information, says: “[S]ince October 2001, more than 390,000 of the approximately 1,160,000 veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn who have received health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs have been diagnosed with PTSD.”

That 390,000 figure wouldn’t include veterans with traumatic brain injury, which was part of Sanders’ claim, nor would it include veterans with PTSD who were not seeking care through the VA. The IOM 2014 report noted that its numbers likely underestimated the prevalence of PTSD, because not all veterans seek treatment at VA facilities.

On its website, the VA gives a ballpark estimate of the prevalence of PTSD. It says that about 11 percent to 20 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD in a given year. If we apply the high-end estimate, 20 percent, to the total number who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — about 2.5 million — that gets us to Sanders’ 500,000.

That’s not what the senator was told at the 2013 committee hearing, which his campaign cites as his source. But we were able to uncover some data that proved him right after all.

— Lori Robertson