Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Public Affairs and Administration

First Advisor

Dr. Robert Peters

Second Advisor

Dr. Darryl Plunkett

Third Advisor

Dr. Jerry Johnson


Leadership, military, military mental health, combat deployment, exploitive leadership


Soldiers’ deployment experiences have been well-researched and studied, but the primary focus has been on enemy-induced trauma. Being a combat veteran who served in Iraq myself, and as someone who has counseled a plethora of combat veterans, I am keenly aware that there is more than exposure to enemy fire and the loss of comrades that can leave a lasting impression. Often, the actions by and interactions with leaders during deployments can also prove to be quite impactful to soldiers. However, very little research exists on the impact of leadership behavior as a factor during a soldier’s deployment experience and on resulting mental health outcomes.

This research study aimed to explore what type of impact leaders’ behavior has on soldiers’ deployment experiences and the potential effect that impact may have on the soldiers’ subsequent mental health. This research also explored the trends in the data that may align with known leadership theories. A quasi-explanatory sequential mixed method research design was used here, with two distinct phases: a quantitative Phase 1, and then a qualitative Phase 2, with the addition of a qualitative analysis during Phase 1. During Phase 1, participants (n=236) were United States Army veterans who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, who were solicited from veterans-specific Facebook groups. An online survey utilizing Survey Monkey ( provided the data collection instrument for Phase 1, and in depth phone interviews were conducted for the data collection for phase 2. Open, axial, and selective coding were utilized in the qualitative data analysis to explore emerging themes and categories.

I expected to find leader attributes aligning with the servant leadership theory to have a strong relationship with the attributes of a perceived “good” leader. The data emerging from the analysis suggested a good combat leader has a balance of selfless service, technical and tactical proficiency, and leadership by example, as these traits dominate in “good” leader attributes according to the study participants. What is interesting is that the data also suggested that a lack of selfless service (servant leadership theory) attributes correlates with the “worst” leaders as defined by a (-4) or (-5) rating on the online survey. Furthermore, the research identified a moderate, positive correlation between deployment experience and leadership behavior. This research study clearly shows that leaders’ behaviors indeed impact the deployment experiences and, to a degree, mental health outcomes of U.S. Army combat veterans who have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access