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Resilience and Vulnerability in the War Zone

Although Service Members enter the military with varying levels of vulnerability to stress and trauma, a number of factors in the military experience also contribute to the likelihood that they will develop post-deployment stress injuries and substance use disorders.  “While studies of combat veterans in the Second World War have shown that every man had his ‘breaking point,’ some ‘broke’ more easily than others.  Only a small minority of exceptional people appear to be relatively invulnerable in extreme situations” (Herman, 1992, p. 58).

Pre-Deployment Experiences:  In the Iraq War Clinician Guide, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA, 2004) identified a number of pre-deployment factors that can contribute to increased vulnerability to stress, including:

  • Worry and uncertainty
  • Routine changes in deployment orders
  • Multiple revisions of deadlines and locations
  • Worrying about themselves and family members
  • Struggling to make all arrangements
  • Extra stress on single parents, reserve forces, and military members not previously deployed (VA, 2004)

In general, the level and quality of pre-deployment training is one important predictor of post-deployment stress.  The Armed Forces have mobilized to address some of these issues.  For example, the Army has developed an extensive resilience training called “Battlemind.”  Battlemind is defined as “a Soldier’s inner strength to face adversity, fear, and hardship during combat with confidence and resolution.  It is the will to persevere and win.”  Its objectives are “to develop those factors that contribute to the Soldier’s will and spirit to fight and win in combat, thereby reducing combat stress reactions” (WRAIR, 2005).

Resilience Factors During Deployment:  Perhaps the most important resilience factor, cited in many governmental and non-governmental reports, is cohesion, bonding, and buddy-based support within the military Unit (VA, 2004;  MHAT, 2006;  Scaer et al., 2008;  Lighthall, 2008).

This resonates with what we know about the way human beings develop resiliency to stress.  As you may have read in the pages on Resilience and Vulnerability to Traumatic Stress, attunement and bonding with the primary caregiver is often cited as the most important factor in developing children’s ability to balance their stress reactions (through the work of the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus).

Strong, positive, and non-shaming leadership within the Unit, leadership by non-commissioned officers, “R&R,” and mid-tour leaves have also been identified as important protective factors (MHAT, 2006).

Risk Factors During Deployment:  The military has cited a number of factors as being pivotal to the risk of post-deployment stress effects, including the severity of exposure to combat and the degree of life threat or perceived life threat (VA, 2004).  Investigators in the MHAT IV Survey found that “Deployment length was related to higher rates of mental health problems and marital problems” (MHAT, 2006, p. 3).  Overall, risk factors identified in MHAT IV survey included:

  • Combat exposure
  • Deployment concerns
  • Branch of service
  • Multiple deployments
  • Deployment length
  • Pre-existing behavioral health issues
  • Anger
  • Marital concerns

Just as Unit cohesion serves as a strong resilience factor, so can the loss of cohesion serve as a risk factor.  Service members may but lose combat relationships due to the death of close buddies, medical evacuation, emergency leave, and changes in task organization and FOB (Forward Operating Base) locations (WRAIR, 2005).  Veterans who have served as National Guard and Reserve troops have often had lower levels of Unit cohesion.  Though these troops represent about 28 percent of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, VA figures indicate that more than half of the veterans who have suicided after returning home served in the National Guard or the Reserves (Hefling, 2008). The intensity of combat experiences also affects the risk of developing post-deployment stress effects (Lineberry et al., 2006).

The Experience of Killing:  Feelings of responsibility and guilt may worsen some veterans’ post-combat stress effects (Kubany et al., 1995).  In one study of Vietnam veterans (Hiley-Young et al., 1995), investigators found that participation in war-zone violence predicted post-military violence to self, spouse, or others.  Another analysis of Vietnam War veterans found that those who reported that they had killed in combat tended to have higher PTSD scores than those who had not, and scores were even higher for those who said they were directly involved in atrocities (MacNair, 2002).  And a study of suicide attempts among Vietnam combat veterans found that, of the five factors significantly related to suicide attempts (guilt about combat actions, survivor guilt, depression, anxiety, and severe PTSD), guilt about actions in combat was the most significant predictor of suicide attempts and preoccupation with suicide (Hendin and Haas, 1992).

Coping Styles in the War Zone:  Herman (1992) cited a number of characteristics associated with greater resistance to traumatic stress, including high sociability, thoughtful and active coping styles, and a strong perception of ability to control one’s destiny.  She also noted that, in survivors of war and disaster, people who escape through cooperation with others (a response that is largely influenced by the chemical serotonin) tend also to escape trauma and post-trauma effects.

On the other hand, more severe post-trauma responses tend to appear among people who freeze and dissociate (influenced by cortisol, acetylcholine, endorphins, and GABA)—and in those who react in a “Rambo” fashion by jumping into isolated, impulsive action (influenced by adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine).  In their study of Vietnam veterans, and in their review of multiple studies of people who had lived through war and disaster, van der Kolk and Fisler (1995) also found that people who had higher levels of dissociative symptoms during these experiences tended to have higher incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Charney (2005) and Southwick studied 750 Vietnam veterans who had developed neither PTSD nor depression after being held as prisoners of war for a period of six to eight years, during which time they were tortured and/or kept in solitary confinement.  The investigators identified ten elements that they considered critical characteristics of resilience:  optimism, altruism, a moral compass, spirituality, humor, having a role model, social supports, facing fear, having a mission, and training (Charney, 2005 quoted in Rosenbaum and Covino, 2005)

Cultural and Gender Factors in Vulnerability:  Although these factors have yet to be explored in depth, some information is available.  For example, data from Vietnam veterans indicate that Service Members of color were more likely to suffer PTSD but less likely to seek or receive services for it (Hutchinson and Banks-Williams, 2006).

The experts disagree on the role of gender in vulnerability to PTSD.  Some studies (e.g., Breslau et al., 1999) have found women more likely to develop PTSD from exposure to trauma, even after controlling for history of previous exposure to trauma.  However, the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team IV studies of female OIF/OEF Soldiers showed no differences in ability to cope with the stressors and challenges of combat, but did show that women had unique or unmet mental health needs different from those of male Soldiers (MHAT, 2006).  According to SoRelle (2004), PTSD among female veterans may be underreported within the military system, with many seeking services in the community rather than in military facilities, and the incidence of PTSD in women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may be on the rise (SoRelle, 2004).

Next: Service Members' Experiences in Iraq and Afganistan


The material on all of the Clinical Pages is taken directly from the draft version of Finding Balance After the War Zone:  Considerations in the Treatment of Post-Deployment Stress Effects, a manual under development for the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center and Human Priorities.  This draft is copyright © 2008, Pamela Woll.  Reprint permission is universally granted, but attribution is requested.
Click here for References and Other Resources.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the current version of the clinician’s manual draft.
Click here to link to a PDF file of the accompanying booklet for veterans.

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