Predictors of Emotional Distress in Combat Military Flight Engineers

Mil Med. 2021 May 29;usab219. doi: 10.1093/milmed/usab219. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Objective: Exposure to distressing sights (DSs) during combat missions may cause emotional distress. The present study aimed to investigate the association between exposure to DSs involving severe injuries and fatalities during rescue missions and emotional distress, in Israeli Air Force (IAF) helicopter flight engineers (FEs).

Methods: Cross-sectional design using self-report questionnaires. The independent variables included demographics, personal, and military variables-exposure to DSs throughout a whole career service. The dependent variables included Depression (Beck Depression Inventory); State-Trait Anxiety Inventory; Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD Checklist-PCL-5); Somatization (Patient Health Questionnaire); Maslach Burnout Inventory; and Coping Strategies (The Brief COPE). The variables PTSD, depression, and anxiety were examined twice: once as dichotomous variables according to the pathology cutoff point and again as a continuous variable to reveal the intensity of symptoms.

Results: Participants were 106 IAF helicopter FEs (mean age = 39.32, SD = 8.75). Linear regression revealed that initial exposure to distressing battlefield sights (i.e., exposure to severe injuries and fatalities) was a predictor of depression symptoms. Career service FEs aged 31-40 were found to be at the highest risk of emotional distress, with a predictive factor for anxiety symptoms. Use of nonadaptive coping strategies was found to predict depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Conclusion: A significant association was found between exposure to DSs involving severe injuries and fatalities during rescue missions and anxiety, depression, somatization, and burnout. This population is generally perceived as tough and resilient, and this study has a unique contribution in identifying its vulnerabilities. Psychological intervention is crucial after participating in such missions.