For five months of his year-long deployment in Mosul, Iraq, Spc. Daniel Pfeiffer would drive a large armored vehicle called a Stryker. He was trained to sound his air horn to bypass traffic and to drive down the center of streets to avoid roadside debris that might hide explosives.
When he came back to the United States in 2005, Pfeiffer was still scanning the road automatically, he said. The habit persisted for a few months, and he still catches himself watching for debris.
While serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, service members learn combat driving techniques like blazing through intersections without stopping. Sometimes, service members bring home the driving habits and anxiety.
Now, a University of Minnesota researcher is close to collecting data to study such driving behaviors and their dangers. Two years after she received a grant to study service members’ carryover of warzone driving behaviors, Erica Stern expects to receive approval to begin surveying veterans by the end of August.
“Most soldiers know they’ve got these issues showing up — they just don’t know there is anything they can do about them,” she said.
By studying a sample of about 1,600 service members at different stages of re-entry, Stern hopes her research will be the first of its kind to give the military an idea of the magnitude of the problem of carryover aggressive driving and driving anxiety — and what resources should be extended to support soldiers and their families.
“You’ve just come back, you don’t want to go through weeks of medical tests, you just want time off,” Pfeiffer said. “In the early phase, families don’t bring things up because of that euphoric feeling of having the person back. Then, people start noticing the little things, how they’ve changed.”
Stern got the research fellowship from the U.S. Army Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine in 2009, but a long approval process for various parts of conducting research on soldiers has delayed the study.
Stern has conducted smaller scale regional studies on the same topic, but this will be a national study comparing the driving behaviors of service members who have mild traumatic brain injuries, like concussions, to those who have not reported them. A third group will consist of service members who have not been deployed.
One such survey of 150 service members about their driving in the first month of being home showed 31 percent were anxious when driving past objects on the side of the road. About half said they were anxious when other cars approached quickly.
Stern has already developed brochures with simple techniques for addressing post-combat driving that have been adopted by the military. Suggestions include controlled breathing, listening to music and placing calming visual cues on the steering wheel or dashboard.
For the past four years, the U.S. Department of Defense has funded Mary Radomski to research the post-deployment consequences of mTBI at Sister Kenny Research Center at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
For several years, driving simulators have been a common form of rehabilitation for veterans who have been diagnosed with mTBI, she said. The simulators help them realize how dangerous it is to fail to yield or straddle lanes.
Radomski said Stern’s research would be valuable for demonstrating the need for similar programs to help returning soldiers that have less obvious medical problems from their deployment.
Jessica Kiecker, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist for the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, works with veterans who have behind-the-wheel symptoms like anxiety, slow reaction time and memory loss, she said.
In Kiecker’s experience, the symptoms that affect driving usually come as a result of multiple traumatic brain injuries. Part of Stern’s work will be discerning whether soldiers without such injuries may also bring home aggressive driving habits.
While driving with Kiecker, who has her own brake on the passenger side, veterans can actively work through challenging driving situations.
Because he would follow familiar routes in a protected vehicle while serving overseas, Pfeiffer said driving didn’t cause him very much anxiety when he returned home. The most damage that bombs could do was to flatten his Stryker’s tires. The situation would be different, he said, for service members who drove supplies for long distances, a job with greater danger that requires greater vigilance.
“Whatever your job was, you’re going to have anxiety related to what you experienced,” Pfeiffer said.
“If you were doing more driving in a less armored vehicle, more of the fear would be ingrained that if you got hit by an IED you’d get injured. That fear would carry over.”
Pfeiffer remembered a fellow soldier who came home and instinctively swerved or changed lanes before coming to an overpass — a defensive maneuver against people dropping things from above, he said.
“His wife thought it was strange,” Pfeiffer said. “She didn’t bring it up for a little bit.”
Stern said she hopes the upcoming research will mobilize more comprehensive programs to help service members and their families.
“I don’t see this driving as an active aggression but rather, practicing behaviors that are deeply instilled,” Stern said.
“It’s only reasonable to expect some returning soldiers to bring some driving issues to American roads,” Stern said. “And it’s only reasonable for the army, the community and families to work to help smooth their re-entry.”