The Art of Medicine: Taking a Military History

If it weren’t for the round, scaly patch on the young woman’s shoulder, her doctor might never have known that she served in the Navy for 6 years. He wouldn’t have learned about her sun exposure during a year-long station in east Africa, where temperatures regularly reached over 100°F. But because he didn’t ask about her military history, he didn’t hear about the burn pits and dust storms that filled her lungs with toxic particles. He didn’t hear about the infectious diseases to which she was exposed. He didn’t hear about whether or not she was exposed to combat, or if she experienced military sexual trauma. Perhaps if she were an older man with fading tattoos and a Marine Corps baseball cap, he might have thought to ask.

Or perhaps not.

It takes a remarkable amount of courage for an individual to choose to serve in the military. Their time in the service unquestionably impacts their worldview and every other aspect of their lives. Their health and well-being are no exceptions. That is why all health care providers should know how to ask their patients about their military experiences. More veterans receive healthcare outside the Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system than within it, and that number is surely to grow if the VA is privatized, as recently proposed. The time is now for healthcare providers to educate themselves about taking a military history. As physician and nurse practitioner resident trainees, we ask these questions as part of our routine screening both inside and outside the VA healthcare system. The patient who was just described was one of us, and the answers to these questions play a large part in how our patients are diagnosed, treated and understood as people.

The location and era of a veteran’s deployment place them at higher risk for certain conditions. For example, Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant and herbicide, are at increased risk for ischemic heart disease, diabetes, multiple myeloma, other cancers, and Parkinson’s disease. Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are at a higher risk for traumatic brain injury due to their exposure to improvised explosive devices. Lacking awareness of these associations can delay appropriate screening, diagnosis, and management.

Most veterans receive care outside of the VA system. As of 2014, 60% of the 21 million US veterans received health care outside the VA. In Connecticut, where we practice, about 75% of the state’s 200,000 veterans are cared for outside the VA. Recent initiatives like the Veterans Choice Program allow veterans the flexibility of seeing non-VA providers. In order for the medical community to continue providing quality medical care for our veterans, we must remain cognizant of how their military history may influence their physical and mental health.

To be sure, some clinicians working in a non-VA setting may be uncertain about what to ask and how to act upon what may be revealed. The VA has made this part easy by creating a user-friendly pocket card for taking a military health history that can be downloaded to a mobile device: The card also includes useful phone numbers and websites for more information.

As our country considers privatizing the VA, the number of veteran patients in the community is likely to rise. Like all VA providers, we know that a military background can have a huge impact on a person’s life, worldview, and health. That’s why undervaluing the impact of a military history is a disservice to our veterans, no matter where they are seen.

This article was prepared by the authors above in his/her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Connecticut Healthcare System or the United States government.


Meredith Bertrand, NP1

Eugenia Betz, MD1,2

Alice Grant, NP1

Leila Haghighat, MD1,2

Janet Ku, NP1

Sumit R. Kumar, MD1,2

Mona Lalehzari, MD1,2

Benjamin Y. Lu, MD1,2

J. Nicholas Pumilia, MD1,2

Jonathan Stock, MD1,2

Anna Reisman, MD1,2,3

1.     VA Centers of Excellence in Primary Care Education, West Haven Veterans Affairs Hospital, West Haven, CT

2.     Department of Internal Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT

3.     Program for Humanities in Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT.

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