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Afghan Atrocity: Can Stress and Head Trauma Cause a Soldier to “Snap”?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The lawyer for a 38-year-old U.S. serviceman accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians has disputed a number of theories floated to explain the actions of the staff sergeant, who was being flown to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on Friday to stand trial. Efforts to characterize the unidentified soldier’s alleged crimes on March 11 include a New York Times article indicating that he simply “snapped” prior to the shooting due to the stresses of combat, marital problems or drinking too much alcohol.

The soldier—who enlisted in the military a week after the September 11, 2001, attacks and had served three tours in Iraq—has suffered several combat-related injuries, including a concussion sustained by a roadside bomb and the loss of part of a foot, his attorney John Henry Browne acknowledged. The lawyer did not speculate as to whether his client might have psychological or mental health problems. But Browne did tell CNN that during a brief phone conversation with the soldier, “he seemed to be unaware of some of the facts I talked to him about, which makes me concerned about his state of mind.”

Even if the soldier’s state of mind is unknown at this time, the nature of his previous injuries may provide some insight into the forces at work on him. Blunt-force trauma, which can be caused by concussion-inducing trauma, damages the brain by bruising it, stretching or tearing nerve cells, or triggering electrical misfiring, Scientific American Mind reported in its December 2008 issue. In addition, an incident strong enough to cause traumatic brain injury can also be powerful enough to produce emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A combination of mild traumatic brain injury and PTSD is considered the signature injury of the Iraq War.

A 2010 study of more than 18,000 U.S. Army soldiers returning from combat in Iraq found up to 31 percent reported symptoms of PTSD or depression as long as a year after returning from the battlefield. About half of soldiers who had PTSD or depression also reported aggressive behavior or misuse of alcohol. PTSD diagnoses themselves have become controversial, however, with critics pointing out that criteria for assessing PTSD are based on a “faulty, outdated construct that has been badly overstretched” and that many soldiers are misdiagnosed as having the disorder.

As to whether the soldier accused of the recent massacre in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province simply lost cognitive control—or snapped—following one or a series of stressful situations, researchers note that individuals respond to stresses in different ways. A variety of issues can lead a person to a lose their ability to “exercise cognitive control in a healthy manner,” Marco Iacoboni, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and director of the school’s Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Laboratory, told Scientific American last year after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.

In such cases, the person’s self-control mechanisms are redirected toward goals and activities that are violent in a very specific way. “The violence is channeled in a very specific plan, with a very specific target—generally fed by the media through some sort of rhetoric, political or otherwise—with very specific tools,” Iacoboni said.

For the Army sergeant at the center of the shootings, that plan allegedly included hiking more than a mile to a rural Afghan village and going on a shooting spree that left nine children dead. It may be a long time, if ever, before we truly understand the shooter’s state of mind.

Image of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan courtesy of Craig DeBourbon, via

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. blackbird79 10:15 pm 03/16/2012

    Political opportunists themselves haven’t had too much trouble causing our soldiers to ‘snap’ for the past 11 1/2 years: Is some hypothetical, freakish case of head trauma really the primary issue here? Being trained NOT to able to “exercise cognitive control in a healthy manner” is EXACTLY what training to be a soldier in combat is all about — particularly in the case of an out-of-fashion war that was corrupted from the get-go by small-minded personal political agendas, a pathological disregard for established data or rational strategic planning, and incompetence in providing logistical basics.

    Loss of what typical Americans “at home” would describe (rather hypocritically, I might say, in their state of provincial bias and from their relative position of comfort and safety) as normal measures of sympathy, empathy, civility, or sanity is a virtual prerequisite for the organization of an “effective fighting force” under such conditions. The relative deficits in background economic and educational opportunities of our combat personnel compared to an overall statistical profile of young Americans staying home, while causing some problems of their own, ultimately contribute to these soldiers’ readiness for “reorientation”.

    About 82% of Americans asked for all this with fairly minimal prodding — and they got it. The Fourth Estate largely took a powder and effectively “bought the war”. Now, the powers that be will be happy enough to dress up yet another scapegoat in these descriptive terms… or those, as they push him toward whatever fate suits the contending political authorities and matches up with the most favored and comfortable rationalizations.

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  2. 2. Jimmmy2 5:25 am 03/19/2012

    Cognitive therapy is definitely the way to go when it comes to re-orientating soldiers to civilian life. The mind has more power than any circumstance when it comes to deciding what the mind will do next. Cognitive therapy uses logic to override the plight of the moment. And change the paradigm on any individuals valuation of any behavior that is against all our common good.

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  3. 3. plswinford 4:37 pm 03/19/2012

    Given that our subconscioius is largely inaccessible to the conscious self, one has to wonder about the efficacy of what therapists and psychologists can do.

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  4. 4. LynnPMT 7:40 pm 03/20/2012

    I’m not getting into the politics of the war, just the topic of the article. From my medical history I know for a fact that stress and head trauma do cause definite personality changes, and some can be very violent. At 13 I had bacterial meningitis which left me with epilepsy. I had brain surgery for the epilepsy in the left temporal lobe of my brain at age 31. I was a very easy-going person, married, worked full-time, had a beautiful 3yr old son, a dog and a sweet cat which I had owned and loved for over 7 years.
    After the surgery, covering a period of approximately 2-3 years, I was a paranoid, high-strung person, who could not take any stress, didn’t have any patience for a 3yr old and I absolutely detested my cat. It wasn’t allowed out of the basement. I mentioned everything in detail to my neurologist (including almost killing my cat) and he said “well, they’ve cut through everything in your brain, your brain chemistry is completely off, and everything has to heal, blah, blah, blah….” I wasn’t given any other meds than the anti-convulsants I was still on. I suffered a severe concussion 1 year later, was unconcious and in the hospital for 2 days.
    Years later, I am divorced, I never returned to work, I am on long-term disability, I am on more medication than I ever was for the epilepsy (the surgery was successful for that, I no longer have seizures)but my personality, emotions, or feelings for certain things have never returned to the way it was prior to the brain surgery and the severe concussion.
    The soldier in the article served three tours in Iraq, a severe concussion caused by a roadside bomb (that would definitely cause a change in behaviour until completely healed) and he was also dealing with emotional problems from home. No one can blame him for anything until he is thoroughly examined by experts. If I was enlisted and my previous surgery had been caused by a roadside bomb, and I was sent back to Iraq too early, I can tell you right now, I had no emotional feeling for anyone or anything, and I over-reacted at the slightest provocation. I don’t even want to think of what I could have done in that situation.

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  5. 5. thermopraxis 1:36 pm 05/18/2012

    There is something that can be done now and your help is needed to spread the word about it. Thermopraxis has created a revolutionary in-helmet device that can be used to drastically reduce the devastating consequences of concussions using therapeutic hypothermia (cooling). The sooner this product reaches the market, the sooner these types of injuries can be reduced in helmet-wearing athletes. For more information, please see the Concussion Crisis Solution Campaign on YouTube and

    Link to this

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