You Don't Have to See Combat to Get PTSD From War

Feng Yu/

There are many details remaining about the gunman who opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing four, including himself, and injuring 16 more. But here are some key facts about Spc. Ivan Lopez: He served four months in Iraq, he was being treated for undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and he was not in combat during his deployment.

In this type of situation, it might be easy to overlook someone who suffered mental anguish without actually seeing combat. But there are elements of war that are disturbing beyond shooting a weapon and being shot at.

So can a soldier get PTSD without actually seeing combat?

"Yes, you can," says Craig Bryan, the executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies. "It's actually an issue the science in the last several years has been catching up with."

In the past year, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which classifies mental disorders for the American Psychiatric Association, changed its criteria for PTSD to no longer require that a person must have been in a life-threatening situation.

The APA found that many members of the military and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though they didn't think they were going to die, manifested the problems associated with PTSD.

"They have been exposed to atrocities or other events that have a significant effect on their world view, sense of self, etc.," said Bryan, an associate professor at the University of Utah. "People can struggle with mental-health problems even if they haven't been in combat."

Examples of those kinds of events range from seeing dead bodies to seeing other people kill each other to smelling rotting flesh.

In this case, the gunman may have witnessed disturbing images that would eventually require treatment for depression, anxiety, and behavioral issues. Those details are sure to come up.

One of the major struggles for psychiatric professionals, however, is that they don't have the capabilities of determining who is going to become violent and who's not, Bryan said.

But in the last decade, through a large number of clinical trials that the military has helped fund, they're getting closer to resolving this issue.

And the situation is urgent. According to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 31 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say their mental and emotional health is worse than before the wars. If it remains a problem, military suicides and mass shootings are likely to continue.

(Image via Feng Yu/

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.