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Kevlar for the Mind: ‘Inconvenient truth' for military in combat study

Aug. 24, 2012 - 02:31PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 24, 2012 - 02:31PM  |  
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Results from a new study on combat veterans are getting a lot of attention — for good reason.

David Rudd, scientific director of the University of Utah's National Center for Veterans Studies and former Army psychologist, recently presented Congress data from his latest study on veterans with combat experience.

A sample of 244 veterans with repeated deployments and multiple exposures to combat events showed that more than 93 percent qualified for a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis and 70 percent reported a suicide attempt.

The results may seem like common sense, but they are far from it. Until Rudd's study, the connection between severity of combat experience and psychiatric problems, particularly suicide attempts, had never been scientifically established. The connection was often assumed by psychological researchers and health care workers, but the military has been able to call it simply theoretical.

This has allowed the military to dismiss claims that repeated deployments were the bane of our current force. The new study may turn out to be an "inconvenient truth" for the military.

Two key recommendations emerged. First, the Defense Department should rethink its practice of deploying the same troops to combat zones over and over. Since 2001, many service members have racked up more than 60 cumulative months in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.

Unfortunately, this recommendation has little chance of seeing the light of day; the military personnel system would need to be completely overhauled.

The second recommendation has a better chance: Now that there is evidence that veterans with high levels of combat exposure are at increased risk of suicide, mental health treatment should be tailored to meet this group's unique needs.

The military's current "one size fits all" approach treats everyone the same, whether they have been deployed once, a half dozen times or not at all.

Considering the new data, we can conclude that troops who commit suicide without ever deploying are dealing with different problems from those who commit suicide and have experienced combat. Therefore, the two groups should be viewed differently from a mental health perspective, and treatments should be tailored accordingly.

We can only hope political and military leaders will look to the field of psychological research to inform mental health practices for men and women in uniform.

For more on the National Center for Veterans Studies, visit www.ncvs.utah.edu.

Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq and is the author of "Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment." Email kevlarforthemind@militarytimes.com. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.

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