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The buffering effect of relationships on combat exposure, military performance, and mental health of U.S. military soldiers: A vantage point for CFTs

APA Citation:

Reed‐Fitzke, K., & Lucier‐Greer, M. (2020). The buffering effect of relationships on combat exposure, military performance, and mental health of U.S. Military soldiers: A vantage point for CFTs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 46(2), 321-336. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12402

Abstract Created by REACH:

The stress process framework posits that the stress of combat experiences during deployment can wear down service members’ ability to perform well at work, which then puts them at risk for poor mental health outcomes (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]). Using data from 5,283 soldiers (ages 18-25), this study examined the associations between combat experiences and mental health outcomes, accounting for military performance as a possible mediating variable (also known as a linking mechanism) that helps explain the connection between these variables. In other words, is combat experience associated with military performance, and, in turn, is military performance associated with mental health outcomes? Further, these associations were examined within the context of relationship disruptions (e.g., divorce, betrayal) and unit cohesion during the past year. Findings suggest that soldiers who reported more combat experiences also reported poorer military performance and, in turn, had poorer mental health outcomes. These associations were more evident among service members dealing with the additional stress of a relationship disruption within the past year (e.g., betrayal, divorce). Additionally, service members who had strong cohesion with their unit members showed fewer negative outcomes.


Mental health

Branch of Service:


Military Affiliation:

Active Duty

Subject Affiliation:

Active duty service member
Guard/Reserve member


Adulthood (18 yrs & older)
Young adulthood (18 - 29 yrs)


Cross-Sectional Study


Reed‐Fitzke, Kayla, Lucier‐Greer, Mallory


This study examined the role of cumulative combat experiences with regard to military performance and conduct and mental health among a sample of young soldiers from the Army STARRS dataset (N = 5,283). Higher levels of cumulative combat experiences were directly related to poorer performance and conduct and a greater likelihood of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Military performance and conduct served as a linking mechanism between combat experiences and mental health. Using moderated mediation structural equation modeling, relationship disruptions were found to exacerbate the adverse effects of combat experiences; conversely, unit cohesion buffered the impact of combat experiences. Implications for military helping professionals include identifying leverage points for intervention, particularly strengthening the social connections of service members within and outside the military.

Publisher/Sponsoring Organization:

John Wiley & Sons

Publication Type:

REACH Publication

Author Affiliation:

University of Iowa, KRF
Auburn University, MLG


Army STARRS, cumulative combat experiences, mental health, social networks

View Research Summary:

REACH Publication Type:

Research Summary


The Florida State University Dissertation Research Grant

REACH Newsletter:

  January 2020

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