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.