Survey Looks at First Combat Experiences

The first glimpse of combat makes the heart race, the pace of breathing increase and even a loss of hearing. Some shake and some experience tunnel vision.

But nearly everyone in that situation credits their training.

Those are some of the results of “Baptism by Fire: A Survey of First Combat Experience” by Aaron Bazin, a soon-to-be retired Army officer. He conducted the survey for the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Bazin surveyed 304 combat veterans, including those from current wars and back to the Vietnam era, about their first brush with combat. More than 95 percent of the respondents were in the Army. More than 3 percent were in the Marines. The survey consisted of 15 multiple-choice and three open-ended questions.

He defined a combat situation as an event in which a person’s life was put at risk in direct contact with an enemy.

To that end, a telling result is that 59.3 percent said their training prepared them very well and 32.2 percent said it somewhat prepared them. Also, 59.6 percent responded that when the moment occurred, “I didn’t think, I just acted.”

As any combat veteran knows, the body responds to the situation in various ways. In Bazin’s survey, 87.9 percent said their heart rate increased and 42.3 percent reported rapid breathing. They also experienced muscle tension [31.9], tunnel vision [24.4], loss of hearing [17.9] and shaking [15]. Several other physiological responses measured below 10 percent, including “general effect on sphincter” and “slowing of reflexes.”

The survey found that a first-time combat experience is emotionally complex. Bazin writes, “Understandably, fear and surprise both peaked and then reduced afterward. Anticipation peaked before combat and then reduced significantly during and after. Anger, sadness, joy, and disgust generally increased throughout the event.” It’s possible, he found, that conflicting emotions can appear at the same time.

Fifty-four percent of respondents said they fired their weapon or engaged the enemy, while 45 percent said they did not. One percent said they didn’t know.

Bazin says there are many reasons for the seemingly low number who took action. Obviously, an explosion or indirect fire would not require a response. And a medic or radio operator, for example, would have other duties.

Still, Bazin notes that post-war surveys by S.L.A. Marshall found only 25 percent of World War II combat soldiers fired their weapons. That number was 50 percent in the Korean War. Despite the limitations he described, Bazin says, it is interesting that his results are in line with those of Marshall.

In his conclusion to the report, Bazin writes, “Overall, the first time a service member faces a real combat situation is often a critical moment of self-actualization. Simply put, once a service member knows battle first hand and survives, he or she will likely never be the same again.”