Psychiatry and the military: an update

Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2006 Sep;29(3):695-707. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2006.04.008.


The United States has historically been concerned about the successful adjustment of its military members returning from war. These concerns are based on the recognition that war-zone exposures may have considerable negative emotional or behavior consequences. As the global war on terror continues, the United States military medical system will be required to address issues at the interface of psychiatry and the law. Despite clinical advances within the theater of war and at tertiary facilities in the United States, some military members will develop chronic and disabling mental illness as a result of traumatic exposure and exacerbated by the demands of the austere and dangerous operational environment. The extent to which violent and aggressive behavior in the aftermath of deployment can be attributed to combat experience remains an area of debate and ongoing investigation. However, experience suggests that a very small subgroup of the hundreds of thousands of war veterans deployed in conjunction with the current conflict in Iraq has already been involved in violent crimes. For this group, military forensic psychiatrists will be called on to make determinations of competency and criminal responsibility and to inform the courts about the potential contributions of war-related distress or disorder to criminal behavior. Though the overwhelming majority of war veterans will not be involved in criminal proceedings, a minority will develop career-ending (and in rare instances, life-ending) disabilities as a result of mental illness. For those who are no longer fit for duty, the military Physical Disability Evaluation System must make determinations of the extent to which future military performance and future civilian social and occupational function have been compromised. For a small yet highly visible minority of returning veterans, questions about the cause, precipitants, and manner of death will necessitate psychological autopsies. This article highlighted recent updates in military forensic psychiatry and the mechanisms through which answers to questions of disability and criminal culpability, and motivation underpinning self-injurious behavior, are determined within the United States military. As the global war on terror progresses, further experience and study of our country's judicial processes, disability system, and the policies and procedures governing psychological autopsies must evolve to meet these increasing demands.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Concussion / diagnosis
  • Brain Concussion / psychology
  • Combat Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Combat Disorders / psychology
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Expert Testimony
  • Humans
  • Malingering / diagnosis
  • Malingering / psychology
  • Military Personnel / psychology*
  • Military Psychiatry*
  • Suicide / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Suicide / psychology
  • Terrorism / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Terrorism / psychology*
  • United States
  • Wounds and Injuries / psychology