Many believe that when it comes to combat duty, the more experiences a soldier has, the more resilient he will become. The opposite, however, appears to be true.

In a new study, conducted by David Rudd, Ph.D. of the University of Utah, National Center for Veterans Studies, a service member's risk of developing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or of attempting suicide increases with the severity of his combat experience.

Expectations Vs Reality

244 veterans were surveyed to evaluate how varying degrees of combat duty impact psychological outcomes. The results, never before validated scientifically, showed that of those involved in heavy combat, 93 percent met the qualification for PTSD, and almost 70 percent had attempted suicide.

"The severity of your psychiatric injury, the severity of your symptoms is clearly, undeniably tied to the severity of your combat exposure," Rudd noted in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune.

Rudd presented his findings to the Congressional Veterans Caucus in Washington and will also be sharing his study, to be published shortly, at the August conference of the American Psychological Association (APA).

The findings repudiate the idea that soldiers become better able to cope and more immune when they are in combat for longer periods of time. In fact, sending soldiers on repeated tours may seriously jeopardize their mental health, prompting Rudd to suggest that the military develop unique treatment programs tailored specifically for service members who have served in repeated tours of duty.

Potential Steps

Rudd also urged congressional leaders to reconsider the current practice of redeploying the same soldiers repeatedly to combat duty as evidence shows that prolonged exposure to combat profoundly impacts soldiers' psychological states, putting them at greater risk for PTSD and suicide.

Col. Carl Castro, head of the Department of Defense's suicide prevention and treatment research, stated that combat duty casts a "tremendous psychological and physical burden" on soldiers and their families.

PTSD

PTSD is an anxiety disorder triggered by exposure to a trauma. Combat duty, along with rape, accidents, natural and manmade disasters, kidnapping, and abuse, often contributes to the development of the condition. The onset of PTSD varies, with some people not developing the condition until years after experiencing a trauma. Researchers continue to explore environmental and genetic risk factors that make some individuals more likely than others to develop the illness.

Typical symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of people and places that remind one of the original trauma, irritability, difficulty concentrating, angry outbursts, and isolation. The patient's personal and professional relationships often suffer, and many deal with their emotional pain by abusing drugs and alcohol.

Further compounding the problem among soldiers is the shame associated with mental health, especially among military personnel. Afraid of being stigmatized, labeled or overlooked for promotions, many veterans try to conceal their symptoms.

Meanwhile, after a decade fighting two wars in foreign lands, the military has seen an enormous rise in suicides among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most experts agree that the psychological wounds of these wars are greater than any other injuries.

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