Veterans and Violence Part 1: Psychological and Neuropsychological Evaluations of Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury


As a result of the pervasiveness of polytrauma experienced in soldiers serving in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF-Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and the recent homicides and violent offenses committed by returning veterans from the Middle East that have gained national attention, there is growing concern of their adjustment to civilian life. Of concern is their risk of future mental health problems, substance abuse, psychosocial adjustment, and risk for suicide, violence, and homicide.

The objective of this two-part article is to discuss the nature and prevalence of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in active military and veterans as well as the forensic psychological and neuropsychological assessment of these conditions in legal matters.

In Part I, the author will highlight the cumulative effects of traumatic brain injury and PTSD on the brain and their relationship to substance abuse and addiction, violence, and ultimately homicidal behavior.

In Part II, the author will apply the forensic assessment of military servicemen/women with TBI and PTSD to legal issues in criminal cases in both Texas and federal courts. The reader should also appreciate that the information in this article also is relevant to civilian PTSD, TBI, and violent offenses.

Nature and Prevalence of TBI in Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans

There is a growing concern regarding combat-related traumatic brain injury in the current conflicts of OEF and OIF. Traumatic brain injury is a common consequence of modern warfare. In these Middle Eastern conflicts, the blast injury has arisen as a new mechanism of brain injury. Blast induced brain injury can cause high rates of sensory impairment, pain issues, and polytrauma including serious brain and medical injuries as well as PTSD.

Recently, the Joint Theater Trauma Registry analyzed wounding patterns and mechanisms of combat wounds from the current conflicts and found an increase in numbers of injuries to the

head and neck region in the current OEF and OIF conflicts.1

A recent study found that 88% of combat-related traumatic brain injuries involved exposure to explosions (improvised explosive devices – IED’s, mortar, mine, and rocket-propelled grenades).2

A study from the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center of returning soldiers treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center indicated that about 60% of those injured by explosion while deployed had a TBI (44% mild TBI, 56% moderate to severe TBI).3 Most of these TBIs occurred when an external force significantly disrupted brain function often with evidence of a period of loss of consciousness (LOC) or alteration in consciousness, including possible confusion and disorientation, as well as loss of memory (amnesia) for events immediately before, during, or after the injury.

When considering combat specific traumatic brain injuries, data from the Navy-Marine Corps Combat Trauma Registry for OIF revealed that being wounded in action was associated with more severe traumatic brain injury (skull fracture in 26% of cases), injury to more areas of the body (polytrauma), and a higher rate of evacuation. 4A recent set of studies of combat injured service members receiving inpatient care at VA polytrauma rehabilitation centers indicated that 97% had a TBI, more than half experienced mental health symptoms including depression and PTSD, as well as issues related to pain.5

Studies have shown that the overall rate of deployment related TBI is more significant and about twice as frequent than non-deployed personnel. TBI screening of specific military populations soon after return from deployment have found rates between 15% and 23% for TBI’s.6 The majority of deployed head injuries are mild in nature related to concussions including alteration of consciousness rather than a complete loss of consciousness or posttraumatic amnesia, yet many veterans returning to the U.S. continue to experience persistent post concussive symptoms.7

The Neuropsychology TBI

Traumatic brain injuries vary between mild, moderate, and severe and about 80% of all TBIs are mild in severity. Mild concussive injuries are the most common type of TBI, and repetitive concussive injuries are a major focus of military medicine due to their prevalence. While moderate and severe TBI’s often have structural injury which can be seen in neuroimaging (MRI, CT scan), complicated mild TBI’s often have structural injury and abnormal neuroimaging while uncomplicated and mild TBI’s such as concussions often do not have structural injuries revealed on imaging.

Those at risk for mild TBI include the following:

  1. Young men ages 15 to 24 years of age.
  2. Individuals of low socioeconomic status.
  3. Individuals who have reckless lifestyles including substance abusers.
  4. African/American and minority status individuals.
  5. Individuals living in high crime areas.
  6. Individuals with a history of ADHD, low IQ, and/or substance abuse.

Many veterans qualify for a number of these demographic risk factors prior to their admission to the military. The factors most significant in differentiating severities of traumatic brain injury include acute injury characteristics such as duration of unconsciousness and amnesia as well as neurological status in areas of motor function, verbal responding, and response to external commands and stimuli.8

Neuropsychological and emotional sequelae or effects after TBI germane to post-concussive syndrome include the following:

  1. Disorientation and confusion.
  2. Attention, concentration, and processing speed deficits.
  3. Short-term memory deficits.
  4. Executive functioning deficits.
  5. Fatigue and lethargy, lack of motivation.
  6. Sleep disturbance.
  7. Delayed motor/verbal responses.
  8. Language/communication deficits.
  9. Substance abuse.
  10. Depression.
  11. Irritability and aggression.
  12. Impulsivity.
  13. Problems with balance
  14. Headaches and chronic pain.
  15. Impaired hearing and vision
  16. Sensitivity to light and noise
  17. Difficulties in word finding
  18. Personality changes
  19. Social isolation

Recent studies of Army soldiers specify that most brain injuries are mild in severity and blasts were by far the most common mechanism of injury (88%).9 Researchers concluded that TBI may result from primary, secondary or tertiary effects of blast exposure which refer to the direct effects and injuries of the blasts.10

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has become popular in the literature of athletic concussions, and this type of brain injury may also be related to veterans with a history of multiple concussions or subconcussive blows to the head.

Importantly, blast exposed veterans report higher levels of PTSD than those with non-blast mild traumatic brain injuries, and therefore a history of polytrauma is common in many veterans exposed to Middle East war related combat.11

DSM-5 and TBI

The DSM-512 added a mild neurocognitive disorder associated with traumatic brain injury diagnosis which is caused by an impact to the head or other mechanisms of rapid movement or displacement of the brain in the skull as can happen with blast injuries. The mild neurocognitive disorder diagnosis includes primarily evidence of modest cognitive decline from a previous level of performance in one or more cognitive domains (complex attention, executive function, learning and memory, language, perceptual-motor, or social cognition) based on concern of the individual, a knowledgeable informant, or the clinician that there has been a mild decline in cognitive function; and a modest impairment in cognitive performance, preferably documented by standardized neuropsychological testing or, in its absence, another quantified clinical assessment. The cognitive deficits do not interfere with capacity for independence in everyday activities (i.e., complex instrumental activities of daily living such as paying bills or managing medications are preserved, but greater effort, compensatory strategies, or accommodation may be required).

In contrast, major neurocognitive disorder is characterized by a significant decline from a previous level of performance and the cognitive deficits must result in a need for assistance with complex instrumental activities of daily life, such as paying bills or managing medications, or otherwise interfere with independence.

Prevalence of PTSD in Veteran Populations

The psychiatric condition of PTSD has long been a significant hallmark of the psychological effects of war. War related PTSD includes a history of witnessing and/or experiencing traumatic events that led to several cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects at the time of and following the traumatic event(s).

For decades, PTSD was considered more of a psychiatric rather than a neuropsychiatric disorder. Not until recently has there been more of a focus on the structural and functional brain effects of PTSD. In fact, PTSD is associated with regional alterations in brain structure and function that contribute to symptoms of neurocognitive deficits associated with the disorder. A recent meta-analytic study found significant neurocognitive effects associated with PTSD with the largest in verbal learning, followed by speed of information processing, then attention/working memory, followed by verbal memory.13

Researchers estimate the prevalence of PTSD to be about 9% at pre-deployment with post-deployment rates of 12% and 18% for OEF and OIF troops.xii Reservists and National Guard members have often been found to have a higher probable PTSD prevalence than active duty soldiers. The following risk factors place individuals including military personnel at risk for PTSD:

  1. History of childhood trauma and adversity.
  2. Witnessing others wounded or killed.
  3. Lower IQ.
  4. Low socioeconomic status.
  5. Family history of psychiatric illness.

Number one is a notable risk factor, as early trauma is predictive of later trauma.

DSM-5 and PTSD

The DSM-5 made thoughtful revisions for the assessment of veterans, especially those who commit violent offenses. The diagnosis continues to include exposure to actual or threatened trauma, presence of intrusive symptoms, persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event, negative alterations in cognitions and mood associated with the traumatic event, and marked alterations in arousal and reactivity associated with the traumatic event. The changes in arousal and reactivity include irritable or aggressive behavior and reckless self-destructive behavior that are significant alterations and are related to physiological reactions and potential aggression and violent acts by veterans.

The DSM-5 PTSD diagnostic criteria are below:

A. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways:

  1. Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s).
  2. Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others.
  3. Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend. In cases of actual or threatened death of a family member or friend, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental.
  4. Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse).
    • Note: Criterion A4 does not apply to exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures, unless this exposure is work related.

B. Presence of one (or more) of the following intrusion symptoms associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning after the traumatic event(s) occurred:

  1. Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s).
    • Note: In children older than 6 years, repetitive play may occur in which themes or aspects of the traumatic event(s) are expressed.
  1. Recurrent distressing dreams in which the content and/or effect of the dream are related to the traumatic event(s).
    • Note: In children, there may be frightening dreams without recognizable content.
  1. Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) were recurring. (Such reactions may occur on a continuum, with the most extreme expression being a complete loss of awareness of present surroundings.)
    • Note: In children, trauma-specific reenactment may occur in play.
  1. Intense or prolonged psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s).
  2. Marked physiological reactions to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s).

C. Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning after the traumatic event(s) occurred, as evidenced by one or both of the following:

  1. Avoidance of or efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s).
  2. Avoidance of or efforts to avoid external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations) that arouse distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or closely associated with the traumatic event(s).

D. Negative alterations in cognitions and mood associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning, or worsening after the traumatic event(s) occurred, as evidenced by two (or more) of the following:

  1. Inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event(s) (typically due to dissociative amnesia and not to other factors such as head injury, alcohol, or drugs).
  2. Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted,” “The world is completely dangerous,” “My whole nervous system is permanently ruined”).
  3. Persistent, distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event(s) that lead the individual to blame himself/herself or others.
  4. Persistent negative emotional state (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame).
  5. Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities.
  6. Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.
  7. Persistent inability to experience positive emotions (e.g., inability to experience happiness, satisfaction, or loving feelings).

E. Marked alterations in arousal and reactivity associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning, or worsening after the traumatic event(s) occurred, as evidenced by two (or more) of the following:

  1. Irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects.
  2. Reckless or self-destructive behavior.
  3. Hypervigilance.
  4. Exaggerated startle response.
  5. Problems with concentration.
  6. Sleep disturbance (e.g., difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless sleep).

F. Duration of the disturbance (Criteria B, C, D, and E) is more than 1 month.

G. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

H. The disturbance is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., medication, alcohol) or another medical condition.

Specify whether:

With dissociative symptoms: The individual’s symptoms meet the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder, and in addition, in response to the stressor, the individual experiences persistent or recurrent symptoms of either of the following:

  1. Depersonalization: Persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from, and as if one were an outside observer of, one’s mental processes or body (e.g., feeling as though one were in a dream; feeling a sense of unreality of self or body or of time moving slowly).
  2. Derealization: Persistent or recurrent experiences of unreality of surroundings (e.g., the world around the individual is experienced as unreal, dreamlike, distant, or distorted).
    • Note: To use this subtype, the dissociative symptoms must not be attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts, behavior during alcohol intoxication) or another medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).

Specify if:

With delayed expression: If the full diagnostic criteria are not met until at least 6 months after the event (although the onset and expression of some symptoms may be immediate).

As can be seen, the PTSD diagnosis reflects the DSM’s emphasis with veterans, and highlights autonomic arousal symptoms that may be related to aggression to people, irritability, recklessness, self-destructive behavior, hypervigilance, and paranoia. Further, the issue of dissociation explained below is important to consider and analyze, as many offenders have out of mind/body states that occur during their aggressive acts.

Polytrauma/Complex Trauma

Critical to examinations of military defendants is the issue of polytrauma. Many servicemen experienced numerous (poly) life-threatening traumatic events which have adversely affected their physical, psychological, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning and well-being. Many military defendants possess a history of risk factors before military service, including a history of trauma, and specifically polytrauma and complex trauma. The cumulative effects of multiple traumatic events take a toll on an individual who may return to a high stress environment when they return to civilian life.

Complex trauma is the exposure to traumatic stressors including poly-victimization, life-threatening accidents or disasters, and interpersonal losses. Complex trauma often is related to deficits in attachment/bonding to parent(s), abuse and/or neglect, and adversely affects early childhood biopsychosocial development placing the youth at risk for a range of serious problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, oppositional defiance, risk taking, substance abuse) and may lead to aggression. It is also associated with an extremely problematic combination of persistently diminished adaptive arousal reactions; episodic maladaptive hyperarousal; impaired information processing and impulse control; self-critical and aggression-endorsing cognitive schemas; and peer relationships that model and reinforce disinhibited reactions, maladaptive ways of thinking, and aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent behaviors.14

It is imperative to appreciate the military veteran and the pride of the profession and impact of peer influence. Many veterans returning from foreign wars tend to be loyal to their country and their service and desire to return to action. Subsequently, they often minimize and or completely deny any symptoms of PTSD and TBI, as they do not want to put their service and chance to return to war in jeopardy. Further, they often have never been examined for TBI and PTSD issues while in theatre and emphasize loyalty and duty rather than self-care.

Similarly, while the government offers TBI and PTSD screening upon return from war, many serviceman refuse such assessments and there is a peer influence quality to this refusal of assessment and treatment as they do not want to be perceived as emotionally or physically weak. Many also want to pursue other positions, posts, or governmental agency duties and positions and do not want to have any mental health assessment records following them. Unfortunately, instead of being on the road to healing through proper assessment and treatment, they tend to turn to alcohol and drugs as a numbing coping and self-medication effect.

The returning veteran with a history of polytrauma/complex trauma often will ignore, minimize, and/or lack insight into their affected emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning and unfortunately will not be identified and/or seek appropriate treatment and rehabilitation.

Comorbidity of TBI and PTSD

The term comorbidity relates to the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases, conditions, or illnesses in a patient, meaning that the individual is experiencing more than one condition at the same time.

The Rand study of post Iraqi military deployment (OIF) reported a high rate of co-occurrence between a history of mild TBI, PTSD, and depression. Of those experiencing a mild TBI, about 33-44% had overlapping PTSD or depression. On examination of multiple potential predictors of PTSD, researchers found only combat intensity and mild TBI with loss of consciousness were associated with PTSD.15 The authors found that PTSD is strongly associated with mild traumatic brain injury in that 43.9% of soldiers reporting loss of consciousness from TBI met the criteria for PTSD.

Mild TBI may diminish the capacity to employ cognitive resources that would normally be engaged in problem-solving and regulating emotions after trauma, thereby leaving an individual more susceptible to PTSD and related problems.16

Ultimately, mild TBI likely increases the chance of developing PTSD. Critical to the issue of comorbidity and the co-occurrence of mild TBI and PTSD in veteran populations, is the additional prevalence of major depression and substance abuse and addiction. PTSD and depression are related to violence towards self, including suicide, and violence towards others.

Substance Use and PTSD/TBI

Unfortunately, many veterans have both PTSD and TBI and are at more significant risk for using and abusing substances due to the aggregate effect of having both disorders. Critical to the mental health assessment of the veteran, is a dual-diagnostic consideration with emphasis not only on chronic history of substance use but also of PTSD and trauma. Anger, hostility, and violence have cognitive, affective, and behavioral components which are related to the effects of PTSD, TBI, depression, and substance use. The use of substances is a coping mechanism to curb the negative emotional states that veterans often suffer. Substances, especially depressants such as alcohol, are often utilized to self-medicate the often hyperaroused emotional and cognitive state that is related to PTSD.

Combat exposure and history of childhood abuse appear to manifest their influence on criminal and aggressive behavior through increase in substance use and mental health problems.17 It is critical for the mental health examiner to assess not only the PTSD but the prevalence and severity of depression and addiction.

Research has documented a strong relationship between co-occident PTSD and substance use problems in civilian and military populations of both genders.18 Similarly, there are high rates of PTSD among veterans seeking substance use treatment because those with PTSD are likely to use and abuse substances to cope with her emotional and psychological trauma. In fact, men with PTSD are five times more likely to have a substance use disorder compared to the general population. Patients with substance use disorders and PTSD may be at high risk for relapse, and their relapses may be triggered, in part, due to the trauma reminders and cues.

Similarly, traumatic brain injury is also common among those who misuse substances.19 Alcohol and drug abuse are major risk factors for those with TBI. A recent summary of studies of those with non-penetrating TBIs with and without substance use disorders revealed that those with both TBI and substance use disorder had poor neuroradiological outcomes, including reduced hippocampal and gray matter volumes, and enlarged cerebral ventricles. Executive function and memory were moderately affected, but attention and reasoning were not. Emotional functioning was worse in those with both TBI and substance use versus TBI only.20

Unfortunately, the neurobiology of substance use and misuse also affects critical frontolimbic brain systems involved that are some of the same brain areas affected by traumatic brain injury and PTSD. 21

Neuropsychological Assessment of Veterans

When considering neuropsychological assessment of veterans, the neuropsychologist will evaluate relevant areas:

  1. Auditory and visual attention.
  2. Processing speed and working memory.
  3. Auditory/verbal memory and visual memory.
  4. Executive functioning (planning, reasoning, mental set shifting, problem solving, mental flexibility, disinhibtion, and impulse control)
  5. Visuospatial constructional abilities and sensory perception.
  6. Language abilities.
  7. Intelligence.
  8. Emotional intelligence.
  9. PTSD and psychological functioning.
  10. Cognitive effort.

The brain behavior functions that are affected in PTSD and TBI are often very similar. When considering neuropsychological testing of TBI, obviously the specific area injured in the brain impacts the area of functional deficit. Severe TBI’s involve considerable forces, often through blasts in war producing widespread cellular death and dysfunction with clear global neurocognitive functional consequences. Traumatic brain injury affects the cognitive, emotional, psychological, and physical functioning of an individual.

Of particular interest is the observation that the orbital prefrontal cortex and related circuitry are vulnerable to damage associated with TBI which likely account for the prevalence of executive deficits after TBI and contributes to the high rates of behavioral and emotional dysregulation.22

Neuropsychological testing of TBI often indicates deficits in attention, processing speed, executive functioning, and memory loss.

Similarly, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that neurocognitive alterations occur in PTSD patients.23 Individuals with PTSD often perform less proficiently on learning and memory tasks with impairments more frequently found in the verbal memory domain.24Attention and executive functioning impairments are often indicated in those with PTSD.25 PTSD is also characterized by impaired executive dyscontrol including increased perseveration and poor inhibition of inappropriate responses. Veterans often perform more poorly on continuous performance tasks that measure sustained visual attention as well as on tasks of working memory.

When considering brain structure, the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex are often less responsive in those with PTSD leading to decreased inhibition of the amygdala. Amygdala hyper-reactivity is thought to account for heightened behavioral arousal and exaggerated responses to stimuli that are perceived to be associated with danger or threat which can often lead to aggressive or violent acts.

Violence in Veterans

Veterans returning from deployment are at risk to have a number of risk factors related to psychosocial adjustment and potential future violence:

  1. Histories of childhood abuse and neglect.
  2. Lower socioeconomic status.
  3. Potential lower levels of intelligence.
  4. Lower rank.
  5. Histories and current status of substance abuse and dependence.
  6. Prevalence of mental health issues including PTSD, depression, suicidal, and paranoid thinking.
  7. History of TBI and other medical problems.
  8. Frequent history of exposure to and proficiency in weapons.
  9. Prevalence of social isolation and interpersonal/marital dysfunction when returning from war.
  10. Unemployment and homelessness.

These risk factors can act in a cumulative manner in that the more risk factors that one is exposed to, the more likely a negative outcome.

Arrests in veterans are found to be significantly related to younger age, male gender, having witnessed family violence, prior history of arrests, alcohol and/or drug misuse, and PTSD with high anger/irritability more so than even the presence of combat exposure or TBI.26

Critically to this population, a polytrauma clinical triad (PTSD, TBI, and chronic pain) can be linked to suicidal ideation and violent impulses.27 In fact, suicidal ideation and violent impulses are correlated with PTSD, as well as the combination of TBI and PTSD, pain intensity and interference, drug abuse, and major depressive disorder.

Aggressive behaviors are common amongst veterans with PTSD, and within the first year after deployment, 48% of returning veterans with PTSD reported engaging in physical aggression and 20% reported in engaging in severe violence.28

Factors associated with physical aggression among U.S. Army Soldiers studied from surveys collected six months post-deployment measuring overt aggressive behavior found that aggressive behavior was associated with:29

  1. Highest level of combat intensity
  2. Misuse of alcohol
  3. Diagnosis of PTSD
  4. TBI
  5. Depression
  6. Prior altercation with significant other
  7. Lowest rank (E1-E4)

There were a relatively higher number of minor and severe physical overt aggressive actions reported among soldiers who were previously deployed, notably highest among deployed soldiers reporting the highest levels of combat intensity. Soldiers screening positive for the misuse of alcohol were also significantly more likely to report relatively higher levels of physical aggression.

In a recent study, a large percentage of previously deployed soldiers reported aggressive behaviors after returning home, for example, they: “get angry with someone and kick, smash, or punch something” (43%), “threaten someone with physical violence” (38%), or “get into a fight with someone and hit the person” (18%). 30Studies have focused on spousal aggression which found the prevalence to be significantly higher among soldiers than their civilian counterparts.31 The leading reason is the prevalence of the condition of PTSD. The condition of PTSD is related to not only aggression, but violent thoughts, ownership of a deadly weapon, paranoia, and tendency to have intoxicated states.

Research has revealed heightened aggressive behavior among veterans with PTSD.32 There are higher rates of aggressive behaviors seen in those with PTSD compared to those without PTSD (13.3 violent acts in the prior year compared to 3.54 acts for the prior year).33

Studies of veterans demonstrate a positive relationship between combat exposure and measures of aggression as combat may model and reinforce violence. Combat exposure, PTSD symptoms, and participation in killing have significant effects on aggressive behavior in veterans, especially violence to self, spouse, and others. PTSD is correlated with an onset of destruction of property, violence to persons, violent threats, ownership of multiple firearms, knives, aiming guns at family members, considering suicide with firearms, and loading guns with the purpose of suicide in mind.34 These facts suggest a tendency for veterans to be at risk to be violent towards self and others.

A recent study examined the risk of recidivism among justice-involved veterans.35 They found substance abuse and indicators of antisociality were linked to justice involvement in veterans, yet the evidence for negative family/marital circumstances and lack of positive school and work involvement as risk factors was mixed. PTSD and traumatic brain injury, particularly when combined with anger and irritability issues, may be veteran-specific risk factors for violent offending. Other violence risk factors include combat exposure and PTSD, TBI, and homelessness/poverty.

The authors emphasized that combat exposure PTSD is particularly relevant with a history of violent offending among veterans, especially if they are exacerbated by other factors such as substance abuse and anger. They noted that traumatic brain injury is often associated with problematic behavioral and personality changes including impulsivity, aggression, low frustration tolerance, and problem-solving deficits.

The authors cited the most recent estimates indicate that ten percent of those incarcerated in federal prison have a history of U.S. military service.36

Another study examined PTSD symptoms in family versus stranger violence in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.37 Of those veterans studied, 13% reported aggression toward a family member and 9% toward a stranger during the one-year study period.

PTSD and Violence

Three domains of functioning are influenced by PTSD symptoms including cognition, physiological arousal, and emotions. Changes in cognition include flashbacks such as altered consciousness. Traumatized individuals tend to misperceive threat towards themselves or others in their environment. They often hold extreme beliefs about justice based on their traumatic experiences. They may believe in a need for retribution to remedy perceived wrongdoings and disregard authority or display an indifference in the law because of prior perceived and actual abuse by authority figures.

Heightened psychophysiological arousal includes evidence of anger and irritability such as hyperarousal symptoms producing the survival response of fight or flight when faced with situations perceived to be dangerous. Hypervigilance includes the person always being on guard and suspicious of their environment even to the point of having paranoid thoughts. Exaggerated startle response may include the person reacting instinctively or impulsively to threatening stimuli. Emotional reactions include psychological distress in which individuals with PTSD have heightened stress influencing their mental ability to make well-reasoned responses. Heightened emotions are often common with those with PTSD including elements of anxiety, fear, anger, shame, and depression and ultimately substance abuse to deal with these emotions.

Emotional numbing symptoms of PTSD may include diminished empathy for the victim, lack of remorse, and difficulties appreciating the severity and consequences of one’s behaviors. Furthermore, while many veterans attempt to escape and avoid distressing and trauma related thoughts, images, and negative emotions, this suppression increases sympathetic activation, ultimately making it more difficult for veterans to regulate and control emotions when they are triggered.38

It is imperative for the forensic expert and attorney to appreciate how PTSD is specifically related to emotional and behavioral dysregulation as an underlying mechanism of impulsive aggression.39

Veterans with PTSD have heightened neural and physiological responses to both trauma-related and neutral stimuli, indicating they have difficulties distinguishing between safe and potentially unsafe (trauma-related) people and places.40 Unfortunately, many veterans return from deployment and continue to interpret environmental events and people as dangerous, unsafe, and threatening, and their emotional regulation resources are overtaxed, and emotions may be difficult to control.41 The condition of PTSD places a veteran at risk to be in a state of hyper-aroused activation and to misperceive an environmental event as stressful and threatening leading them to react in an impulsive and aggressive manner.

PTSD symptoms are particularly relevant for understanding violence risk.42 Re-experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks have some connection with aggression. They stress the dissociative nature and detachment from reality that may be involved with violence as a sufferer of PTSD may commit an act of aggression while re-experiencing the trauma. In fact, re-experiencing and flashback-type symptoms recently have been reported to be positively related to aggressive or impulsive behavior.43 Numbing symptoms and avoidance may also be strong predictors of violence.44 Escape avoidance and emotionally distancing from others have been shown to be positively related to aggression and hostility. Excitation and hyperarousal response-like symptoms are also related to violence.45

Those with PTSD are typically physiologically aroused and will have an intensified state of anger and aggression. Physical reactions to triggers from the trauma including elevated heart rate, sweating, and physical tension are related to a high rate of aggression. Hypervigilance and paranoia, even to a level of psychosis, are not uncommon. Hyperarousal and dissociation type psychotic symptoms may place an individual at risk for aggression due to the connection of paranoia and threat/control override symptoms that appear in psychotic disorders. Misperceived threats and paranoia are significant to a risk of violence.

When considering neuropsychological aspects of the cognition of PTSD and risk for violence, it is noted that the need for physiological arousal and stimulation may lead to reckless and aggressive behavior. Many combat veterans return to the U.S. and have become accustomed to the variability in stress, action, and stimulation that combat brings them. This heightened stimulation changes the structure and function of the brain in areas critical to impulse control. Ultimately, they return to the U.S. with a “need for speed” in that their brain’s structure and functioning has changed, and they crave stimulation and arousal that they have been accustomed to in war and are prone in reacting recklessly and impulsively.

TBI and Violence

Traumatic brain injury is a complex injury resulting from an external force that often results in a change in brain function. Aggression is a common neuropsychiatric sequelae of TBI, and again a relationship between TBI and aggression has been found in veterans.46 A recent neuroimaging study found a difference between men and women with TBI and aggression, such that male veterans with TBI reported significantly more physical aggression, revenge planning, and urges to engage in physical violence.47

Acute post-concussive aggression and violence is often referred to as behavioral dyscontrol (including hesitation, impulsivity, disinhibition, restlessness, irritability, mood lability, and explosive behavior).

Posttraumatic aggression is often reactive in nature pertaining to the organic aggressive syndrome which describes aggressive behavior that is reactive and typically provoked, even by trivial stimuli. Such aggression is non-reflective, unplanned, non-instrumental with no clear objective, and is typically impulsive, explosive, occurring acutely without buildup, and is often egodystonic in nature in that the individual did not intend on the violent act, it was more impulsive, and the offender feels bad about their behavior.48

In contrast, posttraumatic aggression may also be considered as instrumentally objective in motive, being purposeful but unplanned, such as responding to perceived threat or acting in self-defense. Both types of aggression are consistent with TBI and PTSD.

The neuroanatomy of aggression considering traumatic brain injury includes primarily the frontal and temporal lobes, which are susceptible to injury and damage from contact and forces to which the brain is subjected during biochemical trauma.49

Traumatic brain injury is known to tear, shear, and strain brain neurons and injure white matter in a number of important areas that relate to brain behavior function, including potentially most importantly, executive functioning.

The frontal lobes are the last area of the brain to develop and are crucial in higher order cognitive processes pertaining to the regulation of emotion and behavior. Critical areas of the prefrontal cortex are responsible for executive functioning pertaining problem solving, planning, sequencing and processing information, abstraction, considering of consequences, judgment, inhibition, learning from punishment and considering behavioral risk and reward, and empathy for example. Biochemical neurotransmitters of the brain in the frontal lobe areas may be negatively altered and are related to mediation and balance of cognition and emotional behavior.50

Neuropsychological components of violence in veterans, deficits in information processing and the activation of highly arousing emotional memory networks associated with combat trauma leave veterans at risk for aggression. Response information as part of an activated memory structure toward perceived threat can trigger a survival mode of functioning which can include aggressive responding. Many veterans experience an arousal regulation deficit in which they cannot regulate their psychophysiological arousal and are at risk for physical acting out when feeling threatened.51

PTSD, TBI, the Brain, and Violence

When considering both PTSD and TBI and neuropsychological functioning, studies of aggression and violent behavior are focused primarily on the frontal, prefrontal, and temporal brain regions.

Prefrontal regions are involved in modulating and controlling emotional interpersonal behaviors and inhibiting temporal lobe areas especially the amygdala and other limbic regions involved in expression of aggressive drives.52

Research has revealed that PTSD and persistent post-concussive symptoms from TBI are related to most forms of partner and non-partner aggression.53 In another study, veterans with TBI and concurrent anger/irritability were more likely to be arrested than those with TBI but without concurrent anger and irritability.54

Furthermore, veterans with history of PTSD and/or TBI are at risk for volumetric measures of brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with decreased hippocampal and amygdala (limbic system) volumes compared to controls as well as reduced blood flow in the frontal (executive) and temporal areas. All these brain regions are critical in neurocognitive functioning related to memory formation, executive functioning, emotional and behavioral dysregulation, and violence.

A recent study looked at long term associations among PTSD symptoms, traumatic brain injury, and neurocognitive functioning in Army soldiers deployed to the Iraq war.55 They found that increases in PTSD symptom severity at different intervals post-deployment were associated with poor verbal and/or visual recall and memory at the end of each interval and less efficient reaction time at post-deployment. Traumatic brain injury was associated with adverse PTSD symptom outcomes at both post-deployment and long-term follow-up. The authors found that longitudinal and long-term relationships among PTSD symptoms, TBI, and neurocognitive decrements may be due to sustained emotional and neurocognitive symptoms over time.

Importantly, PTSD should be considered as a neurobiopsychosocial disorder involving alterations in neural and brain functioning. PTSD may erode and break down potentially resilient enhancing cognitive resources such as learning and memory as the PTSD symptoms increase in severity. The more severe the PTSD condition is, the more likely it will lead to neurocognitive and emotional impairments. Additionally, having a history of traumatic brain injury also will aggravate PTSD symptomatology.

In another recent study, the author researched variables explaining cognitive complaints among OEF/OIF/OND veterans with a remote history of blast-wave mild traumatic brain injury.56 Despite good prognosis with mild TBI, at least a third of veterans with a history of mild TBI reported post-concussive symptoms inclusive of cognitive complaints. While veterans typically rated executive functioning prior to deployment as intact, over 80% rated their post mild TBI executive function problems as clinically significant. The authors found that current PTSD symptoms were associated with self-reported decline in executive functioning. While veterans often will rate their neurocognitive functioning as significantly impaired post head injury, even with intact neuropsychological testing results, the neurocognitive complaints are often subsumed within the symptoms of PTSD, since PTSD symptoms typically account for most of the perceived and functional neurocognitive decline in veterans.57

The prevalence of traumatic brain injury in offender populations is quite significant and prison studies consistently indicate that approximately 50% of offenders have self-reported histories of traumatic brain injury with evidence of loss of consciousness.58 Similarly, the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder is quite high in the offender population, with up to 27% for male and 38% for female prison populations having the disorder.59 It should be noted that many servicemen who experience mild TBI also experience PTSD and neurocognitive deficits may stem from both, but they are more consistently accounted for through the PTSD lens.

Veterans are at risk for a number of mental health problems such as PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse, head injuries, and there is a cumulative risk to violence with the collection of those disorders affecting one’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Imperative to the assessment of active military and veterans in relationship to risk and violence, veterans are at jeopardy for a number of mental health concerns and polytrauma. The polytrauma combination of PTSD, TBI, pain intensity, as well as substance abuse and major depressive disorder leave veterans at serious risk for suicidality, violence, and homicidality.60

While it is vital for the forensic expert to have a good handle on risk factors for violence in veterans, they also must have an appreciation of the protective mechanisms relevant to the prevention of violence and aggression in veterans.61 Many of these factors include steady work, resilience, social support, report of no physical pain, ability for self-care, healthy sleep, perceived self-determination, and having needs met. Therefore, emphasis on VA rehabilitation programs and interventions to reduce homelessness, retrain veterans for civilian work, enhance financial literacy, and improve social supports are likely to reduce violence among veterans. Obviously, many veterans have a multitude of risk factors and therefore require a variety of rehabilitative efforts.


The fight/flight sensory perception>emotional>and behavioral response system is critical to the veteran who has PTSD and or TBI history and their legal defenses.

Humans, like all species, have self-protective mechanisms to help us survive. Our fight/or/flight response system is based on a survival mechanism that allows people to react quickly to acute life-threatening situations and is designed to mobilize our brain and body to fight an enemy, run from an avalanche, or freeze to hide from a predator. There are a host of hormonal and neurophysiological affects and responses that interact to assist someone in fighting the threat or fleeing to safety.

Our brain sometimes misinterprets safe situations as dangerous and can set off false alarms. When the amygdala, our brain’s watch dog, senses danger, our body enters survival mode quicker than our rational mind can react, trying to figure out why we feel in mortal danger.

Individuals with chronic PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries can misperceive and overreact to stressors that may not be life threatening. The heart of the limbic and emotional system of the brain is the amygdala, which plays significant roles in emotional responses (fear, anxiety, and depression), as well as development of emotional memories and decision making. It is essentially an alarm system that processes threat and danger.62 In distress it sends a message to the hypothalamus, which is a command center of the brain.

When considering the brain structure and function in the fight/flight response system, the hypothalamus of the brain as a command center that communicates with the rest of the body through the automatic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems). The sympathetic nervous system functions as if it was a gas pedal in the car triggering the fight or flight response leading to heightened arousal to perceived dangers while the parasympathetic nervous system is the brakes and is described as the “resting and digesting” response system that calms the body down after the danger leaves. There are a number of hormones that are active in this alarm, gas, and brake system.

Many military veterans and criminal defendants in general have evidence of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, and chronic substance use and intoxicated states at the time of violent offenses that compromise and haywire this fight/flight threat response neuropsychiatric system. There may be a number of symptoms and functional impairments that forensic psychological and neuropsychological examinations can detect regarding the psychiatric diagnoses and brain injuries that must be explored in the context of the situation, environment, and perception of the defendant at the time of their aggressive act.

Both PTSD and TBI symptoms and impairments can lead to a dysfunctional brain. Emotional trauma through PTSD and traumatic brain injuries can place a brain at risk for an overstimulated amygdala and highly alert system perceiving threat everywhere, along with a damaged and dysfunctional frontal lobe system that impedes proper executive functioning regarding problem solving, planning, appreciation of consequences, and impulse control for example. Unfortunately, substances such as methamphetamine, alcohol, and other drugs critically affect brain reward systems that are in part the same areas that are affected and damaged by PTSD and TBI.63 Therefore, there often is a triple threat in violent offense cases regarding PTSD and trauma, brain dysfunction, and the acute and chronic effects of substance use.

Part II of this article in the next edition of the Voice will address forensic psychological and neuropsychological evaluations in military cases with PTSD and TBI. I will examine legal defenses that may be applicable in state and federal cases as well as mitigation and treatment issues with the veteran.


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John Matthew Fabian
John Matthew Fabian
John Matthew Fabian is a board-certified forensic and clinical psychologist and clinical neuropsychologist. His Texas-based practice performs evaluations nationally for cases involving competency, insanity, self-defense, death penalty, and juvenile homicide, among other issues. Dr. Fabian has also worked as a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine Center for Neuropsychological Services and Veteran’s Administration Polytrauma Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD Unit and regularly conducts forensic neuropsychological evaluations with both active duty military and veterans. He can be reached at and 512-487-7216 and 216-338-6462.

John Matthew Fabian is a board-certified forensic and clinical psychologist and clinical neuropsychologist. His Texas-based practice performs evaluations nationally for cases involving competency, insanity, self-defense, death penalty, and juvenile homicide, among other issues. Dr. Fabian has also worked as a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine Center for Neuropsychological Services and Veteran’s Administration Polytrauma Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD Unit and regularly conducts forensic neuropsychological evaluations with both active duty military and veterans. He can be reached at and 512-487-7216 and 216-338-6462.

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