USAF Special Tactics Operator Combat Exposure and Psychological Stress

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Given the length of combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and the role special operations forces will continue to play, we believe it is imperative to gain understanding of the psychological “wear and tear” associated with sustained combat operations on these highly specialized, highly utilized personnel. This study focused on a seldom-studied group, Air Force Special Tactics (ST) operators, to assess combat exposure, current psychological stress, and preferences for support when needed. This study assessed symptoms of posttraumatic stress, depression, anxiety, sleep, anger, and perceptions of help seeking in 5 ST units. Data revealed that the majority of study participants report distress levels below clinical thresholds; however, 26% struggle with generalized stress/agitation and, at smaller percentages, other distress symptoms that have negative impact on work performance. Combat experiences were comparable or higher than Army and Marine maneuver forces, and greater amounts of exposure related to positive screening for a possible mental health disorder, generalized agitation, and posttraumatic symptoms; combat involving direct fighting and being in high-threat situations were also related to posttraumatic stress. Distress rates for Special Operations Weather personnel were higher. Attitudes toward mental health support were positive however, embedded assets were preferred over base clinic providers. We review these and other findings and offer suggestions for future research in this area.

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