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Study finds that for combat soldiers, perceptions of trauma and marital satisfaction strongly influence resiliency


Published March 22, 2018

headshot of Bonnie Vest.
“Much work focuses on the combat exposure itself. But other factors, such as the perception of trauma associated with that exposure, can be even more important. ”
Bonnie Vest, research assistant professor
Department of Family Medicine

The amount of combat to which soldiers are exposed may have less of an effect on them than their perceptions of how traumatic that experience was, according to a study by UB researchers.

The study also found that being satisfied in marriage or a romantic partnership was protective for those who experienced high levels of trauma from combat.

Published online in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in December, the research was designed to study how perceptions of trauma affect reserve and National Guard soldiers who have experienced combat, especially in terms of their potential abuse of alcohol.

Reserve and National Guard soldiers have generally been found to be at greater risk of both alcohol problems and post-deployment problems than soldiers in active duty.

“It’s striking how much combat these reserve populations have experienced,” says Bonnie Vest, lead author and research assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

For the study, 198 reserve and National Guard soldiers living in Western and Central New York completed online surveys about their military experiences, physical and mental health, and substance use, including alcohol.

“Previous research has demonstrated a connection between deployments and combat exposure and problems with alcohol,” says Vest, a medical anthropologist with the department’s Primary Care Research Institute and a Buffalo Translational Consortium scholar with UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

“We wanted to see how they internalize their experience with combat and how it drives the relationship with alcohol problems,” says Gregory G. Homish, co-author and associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior in the School of Public Health and Health Professions. “We look at the context of life events. Maybe it’s not combat exposure itself that is the problem; maybe it’s an individual’s perception of how threatening it was to them.”

After reviewing the data, Homish and Vest concluded that two soldiers who experience the same level of combat can be impacted in significantly different ways.

“Much work focuses on the combat exposure itself,” says Vest. “But other factors, such as the perception of trauma associated with that exposure, can be even more important.”

The paper references previous research that found that an individual’s feeling that they were underprepared for deployment may be one factor that may lead to a higher level of trauma, and thus increased levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.

The UB researchers also found that a high level of satisfaction with a spouse or partner could add to an individual’s resiliency, even if they did perceive significant trauma as a result of combat exposure.

“In some of our earlier work, marital satisfaction was found to be protective against anxiety, depression, PTSD and anger,” Homish notes. “In this study, we found that for those who rated combat as traumatic, higher marriage satisfaction was protective.”

The researchers say that’s an optimistic finding and that it underscores the importance of the military’s active support of marriage and family programs.

“Maybe you are a less-resilient person, but your social networks, such as your marriage, can bolster your ability to bounce back,” Homish says.

Vest concurs: “It’s not just about the individual. Individuals are embedded in societies and cultures, and all of these affect outcomes.”

The project is part of Operation: SAFETY (Soldiers and Families Excelling Through the Years), supported by a $2.3 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded to Homish.

Along with Vest and Homish, other co-authors are D. Lynn Homish, project director, and Rachel A. Hoopsick, a doctoral student, both in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.