Military trauma specialist finds common theme in long-term study

Resounding resilience

By Malorie Sougéy

You might think studying trauma can only lead to dark places, but Briana Nelson Goff has learned otherwise during the course of more than 30 years of trauma research.

Through a career studying military trauma, as well as international and disaster trauma, she has found a common thread among trauma survivors.

“Resilience is a part of every trauma survivor’s journey — and they have so much resilience,” she said.

Nelson Goff, professor of applied human sciences in the Kansas State University College of Health and Human Sciences, conducts research focused on trauma and PTSD in couples and families. In 2005, she began a long-term study on the topic with 50 military couples stationed at Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth, both in Kansas.

Using data collected through interviews and surveys, she and her team of students analyzed relationship satisfaction as it related to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, symptom measures. They found that PTSD has a negative effect on relationship satisfaction, something Nelson Goff had suspected but never before had quantitative data to support. Even so, many couples said they grew from the experiences.

“I remember being amazed and honestly shocked at the resilience they described,” Nelson Goff said. “They described how they survived the deployments and other traumas and how they were better because of — or despite — those experiences. They had hope for the future.”

In 2015, 10 years after the first interviews, Nelson Goff conducted a follow-up study with 26 of the original couples. With information spanning 10 years — before, during and after deployments — Nelson Goff found that despite the adverse effects of PTSD on relationship satisfaction, most couples endured and adapted.

“The soldiers saw death and destruction — all the horrors of war,” said Nelson Goff. “Many deployed and came home multiple times. The soldiers and spouses supported each other through it all. They show us resilience is possible.”

Throughout her career, Nelson Goff has authored more than 40 academic publications about the effects of trauma on the couple relationship.

Results of the research

Briana Nelson Goff’s recently published book, “Bulletproof Vows: Stories of Couples Navigating Military Deployments and Life’s Battles,” is the culmination of more than 30 years of trauma research. It tells the stories of eight post-9/11 Army couples, interviewed first in 2005 and again in 2015.

“This book gives us a glimpse into their lives, but it also provides hope,” said Nelson Goff. “Hope that even after enduring combat, war, disability and death, there is still life to live.”