The trauma from hard combat can devastate veterans until old age, even as it influences others to be wiser, gentler and more accepting in their twilight years, a new University of Florida study has found.
The findings are ominous with the exposure of today's men and women to heavy combat in the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars on terror at a rate that probably exceeds the length of time for U.S. veterans during World War II, said UF sociologist Monika Ardelt.
"The study shows that we really need to take care of our veterans when they arrive home, because if we don't, they may have problems for the rest of their lives," she said.
"Yet veterans report they are facing long waiting lines at mental health clinics and struggling to get the services they need."
The 60-year study, co-authored with UF graduate student Scott Landes and George Vaillant, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, compared 50 World War II veterans with high combat exposure with 110 veterans without any combat experiences.
Results showed that heavy combat exposure at a young age had a detrimental effect on physical health and psychological well-being for about half of the men well into their 80s, she said.
Getting treatment not only prevents serious health problems but it can boost the mental well-being of veterans with heavy combat exposure to higher levels than their comrades who saw little battle action, Ardelt said.
The study found that about half of the veterans who experienced a high level of combat showed signs of stress-related growth at mid-life, leading to greater wisdom and well-being in old age than among veterans who witnessed no combat, she said.
"You can either conclude that God has abandoned you, the world is an unfair place and there is nothing else to do but close yourself off from it all or you can manage to open yourself up and develop compassion for the suffering of others realizing that you have now become a part of it," she said.
The findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Research in Human Development.