Part One: Study of PTSD among PAOs

This is a four-part series on possible effects of trauma exposure on Army public affairs professionals in combat. Look for part two of Suzanne Nagel's observations from her graduate research into the topic on October 26 and part three on November 2. On November 9, we will wrap up the series with expert advice on where to find help.

Four years ago, I met a young public affairs officer with serious problems. He was having a hard time coping with normal things. And worse, it appeared that his command either didn’t or wouldn’t empathize with his situation. Turns out, he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, brought on by multiple combat deployments.

That encounter with this officer, and other Army public affairs professionals over the past 17 years, led to what I consider my life’s work. And that is my Study on the Effect of Combat Exposure on Army Public Affairs Soldiers.

In combat, public affairs soldiers are called upon to document war, memorialize the fallen and to educate the American public. My study aimed to provide a glimpse of what these soldiers experience during deployment and explore some of attitudes that surround them. PTSD and stigma were at the center of the study.

It’s hard to believe that my life’s work can be summed up in a 78-page master’s thesis for the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Hopefully, the words will have meaning to someone. My greatest hope is that it might encourage public affairs soldiers to seek help and to have empathy for and encourage those who also need help.

About this time last year, I interviewed 22 current and former public affairs soldiers of all ranks, both active duty and Army Reserve. Candidates for the study had to have deployed at least once in support of combat or humanitarian missions. I started each interview with a PTSD checklist, then asked the soldiers about their deployment experiences, training, attitudes about PTSD, and the relationship between public affairs and combat units during deployment. 

The interviews were both provocative and insightful. The soldiers, as I expected, were intelligent and articulate. I felt guilty asking them questions that brought up unpleasant memories. Some told me the interview was cathartic because they were talking about their experiences for the first time. Some – both men and women – wept as they talked. It was hard for me not to cry along with them.

My thesis committee described their stories as fascinating, heartbreaking and disturbing. You can judge for yourself. Over the next couple days, I will share some of the results of my study. A link to the full paper will also be posted online for those who can tolerate scholarly-style writing. Keep in mind that the study is in no way scientific. Qualitative studies are not intended to be. It was intended to gather some insight, perhaps for future exploration of the topic. 

I know that some of you will disagree with the thoughts expressed in this study, particularly thoughts about the stigma that many respondents suggest exists within the public affairs ranks. I reported on the clear patterns I found in my interviews and ask that you keep an open mind.

Put yourself in their shoes, and then ask yourself, what can you do to help?

Suzanne Spitzfaden Nagel

Suzanne is the deputy public affairs officer for U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She began her civil service career with the Army in 1998 in what was then known as the 7th Army Training Center in Grafenwoer, Germany. Prior to joining Army public affairs, she was a print journalist in the civilian media market in North Carolina.