Study looks at psychological effects suffered by combat medics

Spc. Victor Bardales is treated for shrapnel wounds by medics Sgt. Joe Tapia, left, Sgt. Miles Boggs and Pfc. Nicholas Seay from a rocket-propelled grenade attack in May, near Combat Out Post Nalgham, Afghanistan. Laura Rauch/Stars and Stripes



Combat medics serve double duty, both professionally and psychologically.

In addition to bearing all the responsibilities of soldiering, medics must calmly treat the devastating wounds of modern warfare: legs and arms mangled by roadside bombs, bodies peppered with shrapnel, arteries severed by high-velocity bullets.

They are more exposed than other soldiers to seriously wounded or dead fellow servicemembers. Unlike hospital doctors or nurses, who rarely know their patients, medics have the added pressure of being close to the soldiers they are trying to keep alive.

And when one dies, medics often face self-doubt — an emotion they must hide or risk losing the platoon’s confidence, said Sgt. Joshua Hetisimer, 33, a senior medic with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, who has deployed three times.

It’s an awesome responsibility all medics embrace, said Sgt. Chad Howell, 29, of 557 Area Support Medical Company.

“Guys get hurt on the battlefield,” he said, “they look to us, they scream your name.”

Now, preliminary results from a study involving 800 medics — the first of its kind — suggest that medics suffer from higher rates of depression than other soldiers.

Dr. Paula Chapman, a research health scientist at Tampa’s Veterans Administration hospital and the study’s lead investigator, said many of the medics talked about not being able to help when needed.

“Is the depression tied to guilt-based issues?” said Chapman, who was an Army medic, now retired. “That we don’t know yet.”

Chapman’s preliminary findings showed medics were less likely than other soldiers to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This could indicate that medics, whose mission is to heal, and who often choose their specialty, may be more resilient when it comes to combat stress, she said.

But the study looked at medics only three months and 12 months after their deployments, and symptoms of PTSD can develop over time.

“The next step is to look longitudinally at the combat medic, from training through post deployment,” Chapman said.

Despite the study’s results, medics say they already know — or at least strongly suspect — that the unique stressors of their job can cause mental health problems later.

“There is a heightened pressure for medics on the battlefield,” Howell said. “And PTSD is definitely one of the consequences of what we do.”

Sgt. Dallas Jones, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, who was in charge of 38 junior medics attached to various platoons in Afghanistan in 2007, said he made a point of checking on his medics weekly, just to talk and let them decompress. On his visits, he often brought along new medical gadgetry or comfort food, he said, and he joined them on patrols, or doubled with them on dangerous missions.

“When you’re the medic, and the platoon loses a guy, yeah, it affects you,” Jones said.

Hetisimer recalled the death of a friend, whose Humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device on a patrol in Ramadi, Iraq. Hetisimer saw him on the litter.

“He was still alive,” he said, “but he knew, and we knew, what was going to happen.”

Hetisimer and colleagues worked on him for 45 minutes. His friend died en route to the hospital.



Spc. Victor Bardales is treated for shrapnel wounds by medics Sgt. Joe Tapia, left, Sgt. Miles Boggs and Pfc. Nicholas Seay from a rocket-propelled grenade attack near Combat Outpost Nalgham, Afghanistan, in May.