Mental Health Challenges for SOF Veterans

IW Exercise Ridge Runner 23-01

By Shannon Campbell.

What makes special operations unique cannot be fully described by words. This is due to the difficulty of depicting the actions of special operators involved in secret operations while experiencing insurmountable risks unfathomable to the civilian population. True grit and resiliency are the needed attributes to engage in a training program for the coveted position of special operations operator.

United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) pours millions of dollars into the training and maneuverability of each task force as well as the specialized equipment needed to ensure top-tier performance. Physical and mental health are prioritized as essential, with several programs to ensure safety and stability while service members are a part of USSOCOM.

However, after years of unwavering dedication from the special operator, the compounding effects of both the grueling physical demands and mental strain culminate to showcase the lack of supportive mental healthcare that is desperately needed to ensure stability once the SOF operator transitions to civilian life.

The U.S. Congress enacted the “Veteran Community Care Program” in 2020, allowing many veterans to choose their healthcare providers with some caveats when TRICARE is no longer an option. While this policy has been valuable to many veterans in helping address medical and mental healthcare needs, the USSOCOM veterans’ issues may need more expertise because of the intensive training and combat experience.

In 2020, Christopher Frueh et al. (2020) coined the phrase “operator syndrome,” referring to the healthcare needs of Special Operation Forces (SOF). Frueh et al. (2020) identified the interrelated issues seen with medical healthcare, such as the endocrine system, chronic pain, sleep issues, and mental health disorders stemming from the “extraordinarily high allostatic load” (Frueh et al. 2020, p. 282) SOF incur in their lifetime of service. Rivera et al. (2022) underscore combat experience in Army Special Forces that negatively affected overall health outcomes and combat that involved “fighting, killing, threat to oneself, death, and injury of others” increased the risk of mental health disorders and alcohol abuse. The incredible trauma that SOF members take on daily has a severe outcome after service, which creates the “operator syndrome” that continues to plague SOF veterans. 

The USSOCOM reported a total of 69,000 service members within the branches of the military (USSOCOM Fact Book, 2023). Of the 18.3 million veterans, only a tiny percentage are USSOCOM as of 2023. The multifaceted needs of the USSOCOM veterans can be challenging to address through the VA. The special operators of the SOF, who have given their minds and bodies to the safety of our country, need to have care that is equitable to their sacrifices.  A new policy for the veterans of USSOCOM to have TRICARE benefits for mental healthcare for life seems dismal as compared to the significant investment provided by the U.S. Government for the service members during their time of service.

Addressing mental health issues with veterans of SOF can give them freedom from stigma and tools to live healthier lives after military service. The mental health services offered to veterans within the USSOCOM community can be expanded. Advocacy and education to the U.S. Congress of the exceptionally rare men and women embodying the USSOCOM community can start the process of providing lifelong mental healthcare through TRICARE for civilian life.


Author: Shannon Campbell is an advocate for members of the special operations community. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been providing psychotherapy to military service members as a private clinician in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, since 2015. She is enrolled in the University of Kentucky Doctor of Social Work program, specializing in military behavioral health, which has provided a foundation to advocate for change in how mental healthcare is addressed in the USSOCOM community. Shannon’s spouse is a current member of the special operations community.

Photo: Participants observe an LOC during Ridge Runner Irregular Warfare Exercise 23-01 in West Virginia. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jake Seawolf, WV NG, June 15, 2023.


Frueh, B. C., Madan, A., Fowler, J. C., Stomberg, S., Bradshaw, M., Kelly, K., Weinstein, B., Luttrell, M., Danner, S. G., & Beidel, D. C. (2020). “Operator syndrome”: A unique constellation of military special operation forces’ medical and behavioral health-care needs. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, (4), pp. 281–295.

Rivera, A. C., LeardMann, C. A., Rull, R. P., Cooper, A., Warner, S., Faix, D., Deagle, E., Neff, R., Caserta, R., & Adler, A. B. (2022). Combat exposure and behavioral health in U.S. Army Special Forces. PLOS One, 17(6), e0270515–e0270515.

USSOCOM. (2023). Fact Book 2023.

Veterans Community Care Program. (2023, January 23).