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Combat Experiences and PTSD

During war, military Service members are exposed to a number of potentially traumatic events. In addition to life threatening combat situations, Service members may:

  • Witness injury and death

  • Be involved in serious motor vehicle accidents

  • May handle human remains

There is a strong link between level of combat stress and PTSD.


Combat service members are at risk for death or injury. They may see others hurt or killed. They may have to kill or wound others. They are on alert around the clock. These and other factors can increase their chances of having PTSD or other mental health problems.

For many Service members, being away from home for long periods of time can cause problems at home or work. These problems can add to the stress. This may be even more so for National Guard and Reserve troops who had not expected to be away for so long. Almost half of those who served in Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) have been Guard and Reservists.

Another cause of stress is military sexual trauma (MST). This is sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurs in the military. It can happen to men and women. MST can happen during peace time, training, or war.

What combat experiences were common for those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq?

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the longest combat operations since Vietnam. Many stressors face the troops who served in these operations (OEF/OIF/OND). For instance, soldiers and Marines in Iraq reported more combat stressors than soldiers in Afghanistan. 

Troops who served in Iraq are more likely to report mental health problems than troops who served in Afghanistan. There is a strong link between level of combat stress and PTSD.

What are the mental health effects of serving in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Research shows that 10 to 18 out of every 100 OEF/OIF Veterans are likely to have PTSD after they return. They are also at risk for other mental health problems, such as:  

  • Depression

  • Drinking too much alcohol

  • Tobacco use

  • Concerns over conflicts with others

The research also looked at how the response to war stressors changes over time. PTSD symptoms are more likely to show up in returning OEF/OIF Service members after a delay of several months. Using a brief PTSD screen, Service members were checked when they returned and then again 6 months later. Service members were more likely to have PTSD symptoms at the later time.

However, many Service members who had more PTSD symptoms at their return showed fewer PTSD symptoms after 6 months. Most returning Service members screened negative for PTSD both times.

What increases the risk of PTSD for those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Certain things make it more likely that OEF/OIF/OND Service members will develop PTSD. These things include:

  • Longer deployment time

  • More severe combat exposure, such as:

    • Deployment to "forward" areas close to the enemy

    • Seeing others wounded or killed

  • More severe physical injury

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Lower rank

  • Lower level of schooling

  • Low morale and poor social support within the unit

  • Not being married

  • Family problems

  • Member of the National Guard or Reserves

  • Prior trauma exposure

  • Hispanic ethnic group

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 2/1/2018
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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