Stress spears deployed service personnel

In Iraq and Afghanistan, no one works “behind the lines”

LAS VEGAS — Soldiers fighting at the tip of the spear — the leading edge of combat — confront fighting, suffering and dying. But the success of those soldiers’ operations depends on a huge network of service and support personnel who themselves face considerable and often overlooked war stress, says military sociologist Wilbur Scott of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

After returning from one or more deployments, National Guard combat service personnel — including clerks, truck drivers, medics and supply officers — displayed slightly less emotional resilience and described having experienced more stress while overseas and after returning home than their comrades engaged in combat, Scott reported August 20 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In particular, combat service personnel cited deployment stress triggered by exposure to danger, life-threatening situations and death.

Their responses reflect the changed nature of warfare, Scott suggested. In Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency efforts have replaced conventional warfare. “While those in combat arms typically are thought of as being at the tip of the spear, this thinking applies more accurately to conventional settings rather than those encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Scott said.

Combat units not only fight and kill but establish relationships with local officials, head local building projects and encourage trust in local governments. Service personnel work in the midst of operations, where they can encounter guerilla attacks or roadside bombs.

Poor coping upon returning from National Guard deployment — whether among former service personnel or combat troops — usually involved excessive alcohol drinking, abuse of prescription drugs and carrying a gun for protection, Scott said. Those behaviors are a potentially deadly mix.

Such findings underscore the need to provide programs that ease veterans back into civilian life, commented military sociologist Bradford Booth of ICF International, a private research and consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. Booth directed a pilot study of a government-funded program for 4,000 National Guard members returning home in 2007 from a year in Iraq.

In that study, those who attended three once-a-month training sessions — which focused on mental health issues, strengthening marriages, financial counseling and other topics — displayed signs of adjusting better than vets who declined to attend training.

Although traditionally regarded as “weekend warriors,” National Guard volunteers now regularly get deployed for up to one year in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scott and his colleagues surveyed 1,460 Army National Guard soldiers, including 969 deployed solely to war zones in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Whether combat or service personnel, soldiers returning from war zones were most likely to report having grappled with and found some meaning in their military experiences. Yet they also reported the most symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and the worst difficulties readjusting to civilian life.

“Experiencing personal growth from going through tough times doesn’t mean you’re doing well,” Scott said.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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