Historic records shed light on soldiers' lifelong war scars

In the months after returning home from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, some American soldiers report they are haunted by depression, anxiety, anger and nightmares. Now, a new study into the life and death of Civil War veterans sheds light on the lifelong effects of military combat -- both psychological and physical -- and suggests that a range of diseases and even early death plague those soldiers with the hardest wartime experiences.

"For the first time, we have objective records indicating that horrific war experiences are associated with a lifetime of increased physical disease and mental health difficulties," said Roxane Cohen Silver, UC Irvine professor of psychology and social behavior and senior researcher for the study, which is published in this month's Archives of General Psychiatry.

Looking at the Civil War, when the emotional and physical ailments affecting veterans first became known as "soldier's heart," psychologists have evaluated more than 15,000 Union veterans' military and medical records from the time of their enlistment to their post-war deaths. It is the first such study to use objective records from any war to match combat experiences to disease across a soldier's lifetime. The UCI researchers found the youth of the soldier, the extent of war horrors witnessed and prisoner-of-war experiences were linked to increased signs of cardiac, gastrointestinal and nervous disease throughout the veterans' lifetimes. In fact, the youngest soldiers who witnessed the bloodiest combat had shorter life spans, despite surviving the war itself.

"Unfortunately, it's likely that the deleterious health effects seen in a war conducted more than 130 years ago are applicable to the health and well-being of soldiers fighting wars in the 21st century," said Silver.

To measure the extent of each soldier's war trauma, researchers looked at the percentage of his comrades killed, a figure that represents a variety of stressors such as wit

Contact: Christine Byrd
University of California - Irvine

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