Newsroom News Archive Publications Contact Us for Experts
Media Contacts
Kate Olderman
(215) 349-8369

Related Links
Perelman School of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania Health System

Recommend Story
> Epigenetics Shapes Fate of Brain vs. Brawn Castes in Carpenter Ants
> Molecular Master Switch for Pancreatic Cancer Identified, Potential Predictor of Treatment Outcome
> Eat to Dream: Penn Study Shows Dietary Nutrients Associated with Certain Sleep Patterns
  All News Releases
    Media Resources
spacerspacerNEWS RELEASE spacer Print Version
FEBRUARY 8, 2007
  Penn Study Based on Abu Ghraib Suggests Military Veterans Highly Tolerant of Detainee Abuse
  Male respondents and those with depression or PTSD were more tolerant of abuse

(PHILADELPHIA) – In a study that appears in the current issue of Military Medicine, William C. Holmes, MD, MSCE, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and lead author of the paper, assesses veterans’ tolerance for detainee abuse and variables associated with it.

In the study, three scenarios of detainee abuse, taken directly from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, were presented to veterans. After each scenario, zero tolerance – or the belief that abuse is “completely unacceptable” regardless of who the detainee is – was assessed for the described abuse. Holmes, who is also an investigator at the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, found that:

  • Only 16% of veterans indicated zero tolerance for detainee exposure and deprivation
  • Only 31% indicated zero tolerance for detainee exposure and sexualized humiliation
  • Not even half (48%) indicated zero tolerance for detainee rape

“The level of tolerance exhibited by these findings is surprising, but may not be true for all veterans and certainly cannot be said to be representative of active-duty military,” says Holmes. He adds, “These findings do indicate, however, the value of assessing tolerance for abuse, and for using scenario-based assessment to do that; it provides an argument for similar work being done in active-duty military, particularly those who are heading to Iraq to become involved in sensitive, oversight positions.”

The study was completed by administering paper questionnaires to 351 veteran volunteers at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center’s Mental Health Clinic, Primary Care Clinic, and Women’s Health Center. Participants were asked a number of sociodemographic questions (e.g., age, sex) and other questions (e.g., period of service, service in a war zone). Symptoms of depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were also assessed.

Although every questionnaire administered the three increasingly-severe abuse scenarios, there were three questionnaire versions used: all scenarios of one version ended by stating that the abusing soldier was not ordered by a superior to treat the detainee in this way; all scenarios of the second version ended by stating that the abusing soldier was ordered by a superior to treat the detainee in this way; and all scenarios of the third version ended by stating that a second soldier stated, “This treatment is wrong,” and reported it.

In general, veterans’ tolerance for abuse was least when soldier-initiated, and greatest when superior-ordered. Tolerance for abuse also was high when a whistleblower was involved.

The strongest, most consistently significant variable related to tolerance was depression and comorbid depression/posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those with depression alone and those with comorbid depression/PTSD exhibited odds that were approximately two and three times more tolerant of abuse than those with neither depression or PTSD. Sex of the respondent also was related to tolerance. Men exhibited odds that were ~4 to 20 times more tolerant of abuse than women.

Holmes notes that future studies using scenario-based questionnaire methods are warranted in generalizable war zone samples. “If our results are replicated in active-duty soldiers,” he challenges, “one could imagine the use of scenario-based questionnaires of this type to provide risk stratification of a soldiers’ likelihood for abuse upon entry into a sensitive oversight position. The frequent development of depression and PTSD in soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq would suggest that completion of the questionnaire occur intermittently during their tour of duty as well.”

Holmes is supported by a VA Health Services Research and Development Research Career Development Award; this work was supported by funds from the Veterans Integrated Service Network 4.


PENN Medicine is a $2.9 billion enterprise dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and high-quality patient care. PENN Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Penn's School of Medicine is ranked #2 in the nation for receipt of NIH research funds; and ranked #3 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report's most recent ranking of top research-oriented medical schools. Supporting 1,400 fulltime faculty and 700 students, the School of Medicine is recognized worldwide for its superior education and training of the next generation of physician-scientists and leaders of academic medicine.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System includes three hospitals, all of which have received numerous national patient-care honors [Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital; and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center]; a faculty practice plan; a primary-care provider network; two multispecialty satellite facilities; and home care and hospice.


About Penn Medicine   Contact Us   Site Map   Privacy Statement   Legal Disclaimer   Terms of Use

Penn Medicine, Philadelphia, PA 800-789-PENN © 2016, The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania