Introduction: Previous research has demonstrated that different forms of mental health trajectories can be observed in service members, and that these trajectories are related to combat. However, limited research has examined this phenomenon in relation to physical health. This study aims to determine how combat exposure relates to trajectories of physical health functioning in U.S. service members.
Methods: This study included 11,950 Millennium Cohort Study participants who had an index deployment between 2001 and 2005. Self-reported physical health functioning was obtained 5 times between 2001 and 2016 (analyzed in 2017), and latent growth mixture modeling was used to identify longitudinal trajectories from these assessments. Differences in the shape and prevalence of physical health functioning trajectories were investigated in relation to participants' self-reported combat exposure over the index deployment.
Results: Five physical health functioning trajectories were identified (high-stable, delayed-declining, worsening, improving-worsening, and low-stable). Combat exposure did not influence the shape of trajectories (p=0.12) but did influence trajectory membership. Relative to personnel not exposed to combat, participants reporting combat exposure were more likely to be in the delayed-declining, worsening, and low-stable classes and less likely to be in the high-stable class. However, the high-stable class (i.e., the most optimal class) was the most common trajectory class among not exposed (73.0%) and combat-exposed (64.5%) personnel.
Conclusions: Combat exposure during military deployment is associated with poorer physical health functioning trajectories spanning more than a decade of follow-up. However, even when exposed to combat, consistently high physical health functioning is the modal response.
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