Strong Marriages, Perception, Aid Resiliency for Combat Soldiers

Published April 17, 2018

Research by Bonnie M. Vest, PhD, research assistant professor of family medicine, indicates that being satisfied in a marriage or a romantic partnership can greatly aid the resiliency of a soldier who has served in combat.

“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 M. Vest, PhD
Research assistant professor of family medicine

The research also shows that the amount of combat that soldiers are exposed to may have less of an effect on them than their perceptions of how traumatic the experience was.

National Guard and Reserve Soldiers Studied

The study, originally published online in December and now available in the April issue of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, deals with National Guard and reserve soldiers who have experienced combat and their potential abuse of alcohol.

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

“It’s striking how much combat these reserve populations have experienced,” says Vest, lead author of the study.

Study Deals With Soldiers in Western, Central New York

In the study, 198 National Guard and reserve 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 whose primary research interests center on veterans and military family members.

Protection Against Depression, PTSD, Alcohol Problems

Researchers 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, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anger,” says Gregory G. Homish, PhD, associate professor and associate chair of community health and health behavior in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions and co-author of the study. “In this study, we found that for those who rated combat as traumatic, higher marriage satisfaction was protective.”

Military’s Support of Marriage, Family is Crucial

That 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,” says Vest, who earned her master’s degree and doctoral degree in cultural anthropology from UB.

Perception of Combat Trauma Proves to Be Important

After reviewing the data, Vest and Homish 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.”

Previous research has shown that a soldier’s feeling that he or she was underprepared for deployment may be one factor that may lead to a higher level of trauma and thus increased levels of PTSD and substance abuse.

Project is Part of Operation: SAFETY Grant

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.

Other co-authors are D. Lynn Homish, project director, and Rachel A. Hoopsick, a doctoral student, both in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.