As a special operations soldier, I always held the belief that my fellow operators and I were relatively immune to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when compared with other soldiers. Of course, no one is really immune to such a disorder, but it was so rarely a problem with anyone I worked with, and we talked about it often. After a violent engagement or a traumatic event, we’d briefly discuss the events openly and critically and then move on. We were sensitive to the dangers of mental and emotional problems associated with combat because we had had hours of classes and training on the subject, but it never became a major problem within our units.
Speaking from personal experience, when I was on my very first real combat operation, we became surrounded by enemy forces and took effective and sustained fire. I distinctly remember having a discussion during the engagement with a fellow rookie about how calm we were. I had always expected to have tunnel vision and be so amped that my decisions would be less than clear. That was not at all the case. I was calm and collected and after we returned to base I fell right asleep.
From then on I knew that our training actually worked – and worked well. As a result of these experiences I came up with a hypothesis regarding PTSD in Special Operations Forces. Consider the following: a typical conventional soldier joins when he is eighteen years old and fresh out of high school. He is given fifteen weeks or so of basic training before being shipped to combat, upon which time he is immediately exposed to shocking experiences. Clearly, he will likely not react well to such “traumatic” experiences.
Conversely, SOF recruits are generally older and more mature, and are trained for 18 to 24 months in highly specialized courses of instruction before ever setting foot on a battlefield. These men will have a significantly lower likelihood of experiencing trauma when they see combat because they are exceptionally prepared for it, they’re mature, and have had ample time to psychologically prepare for what is to come. Therefore, it is natural to expect to see a lower incidence of PTSD in SOF personnel than in conventional infantry soldiers.
I developed this hypothesis based purely on anecdotal evidence. However, in light of recent media knee-jerk reaction to one or two crazy veterans who became violent and subsequent PTSD finger-pointing, I decided to research the subject. I found a number of studies which support my hypothesis and counter the media’s broad brush strokes.
A study conducted by the US National Center for PTSD in 2003 found that SOF combat personnel were much less likely to suffer symptoms of PTSD than conventional infantry. The study, which was conducted at Fort Bragg, tested whether SOF soldiers have neurological differences that make them more resilient to post-traumatic stress disorder than the average soldier. SOF soldiers were tested for levels of a molecule called “neuropeptide Y” (associated with preventing stress) in their blood. The researchers found that nearly all SOF personnel had elevated levels of neuropeptide Y in their blood. According to the researchers, studies have shown a correlation between high levels of norepinephrine and chronic feelings of stress; neuropeptide Y molecule blocks norepinephrine, and this could be the functional basis for its effectiveness in lower stress levels.
Standby for part two where I look at more in-depth research and share my own experience.
About the author: Jud Kauffman served in the U.S. Navy for 8 years, first as an intelligence analyst and later as a Navy SEAL, deploying multiple times throughout the Middle East on hundreds of combat missions. He later served as the National Program Manager for the Naval Special Operations Mentor Program, selecting and mentoring potential civilian SEAL, EOD, SWCC, and Diver candidates. He helped cofound The Great American Mud Run and Talosorion Security. In 2012, he founded ExBellum.com, a website aimed at connecting Special Operations veterans with civilian employers.