“The classic analyst takes in the information and then retreats into their head and wants to think about it, then maybe checks the environment again and thinks some more,” said Dr. Charles A. Morgan III, a psychiatrist at the University of New Haven who has worked extensively with Special Operations forces. The elite combat troops operate much differently, he said. “They immediately take in their surroundings; they have a high degree of external focus. But they’re able to switch internally, make a quick decision — then act and adjust as they go.”
In training and in combat, this intense awareness and decision making become much sharper. “Essentially the decision making and acting become second nature,” said Bret Moore, the deputy director of the Army’s Warrior Resiliency Program of the Regional Health Command-Central in San Antonio. “You do not want these guys thinking too much.”
That may help explain the recent suicide findings. The research team, led by Dr. Kessler of Harvard and Dr. Robert Ursano of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, analyzed 496 suicides among men in the Army from 2004 to 2009. The risks for two jobs — infantryman and combat engineer — were higher across the board, at 37 per 100,000 each year. But the rate was 30 per 100,000 while deployed, compared with 40 per 100,000 when back home. The rate across the rest of the Army was much lower at home, 15 per 100,000, compared with during deployment, where it was 22 per 100,000.
“These are the guys, we think, who are getting into fights, or in trouble with the law, who are impulsive and don’t manage well when they’re back in a civilian world that seems boring and frustrating,” Dr. Kessler said.
Mr. Lundeby had the makings of a combat soldier from an early age. Growing up in Modesto, Calif., the younger of two brothers, he was mostly easygoing — a Boy Scout, a driven athlete — but for a sensitivity to injustices, small and large. “He had this intense sense of what was fair and just, and he would go toe to toe” with anyone, said his mother, Vicky Lundeby. “He had to be the one to make things right.”
That quality left him feeling bored and disconnected after high school, studying graphic arts at a local community college. The news coming out of Iraq in 2003 put him in motion: He signed up for the Army Reserve, then the National Guard. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina landed his Guard unit in New Orleans, working for a month to contain looting and help people evacuate to safety. “I decided, right there,” he said, “I want to do this every day.”
“Katrina changed him,” said his father, Luther. “I feel like it gave him that purpose he wanted.”
Ryan Lundeby joined the Army and soon set his sights on the Rangers, beginning an intense training regimen. In 2007, he deployed for the first time, to Iraq. “It felt like Christmas; finally, a chance to do this for keeps.”
But returning home for good in 2010, he was a man on constant patrol. He raged at fellow drivers whom he considered rude or careless. He confronted litterers, often by picking up the offending cigarette butt or fast-food wrapper and throwing it in their faces. When a driver cut off Mary, then his fiancée, on her way home from work, he jumped on his motorcycle in nothing but running shorts and prowled the neighborhood to make the man pay.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d found him,” he said. “But I feel like that’s what happens to guys. You react — and next thing you know, the police are there.”
The combat veterans in this category form “a pretty closed club,” said Ford Sypher, a friend of Mr. Lundeby’s and a fellow Ranger, who deployed five times and, after leaving the Army, has returned to the Middle East, now as a documentary filmmaker. “We don’t talk about this stuff much with anyone. But we’re all trying to figure out ways to manage it.”
For now, there is no therapy that reliably reverses or dials down the instincts acquired in multiple combat tours. Military-backed researchers are experimenting with a variety of approaches for these veterans, including virtual reality and biofeedback techniques, in effect to train new instincts that overwrite the old ones.
There are psychologists who argue that vigilance, snap decision making and other combat attributes can be helpful in some aspects of civilian life. “You begin by letting people know that they’re not crazy, it’s not at all abnormal to have these reactions — it’s normal,” said Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who works with veterans. And those skills, he added, “can be turned to a future mission, whether that’s related to family, or helping other vets, or to a job.”
Mr. Lundeby has been lucky. He has a supportive family and group of friends, and a wife who understands his quirks and helps him manage them. She was the one who demanded he visit a veterans clinic, which led to therapy with a former Marine who understood how to get him to think before acting — even if the urge was strong.
“He got me to ask, ‘Do I have time to do this — to right every wrong?’” said Mr. Lundeby, who several months ago landed his first post-deployment job, at a helicopter manufacturer. “And he got me to see the humanity of the people I was confronting.”
“So I may always be a Ranger, in some ways,” he said, “but I’ve stopped trying to be the world’s sheriff.”