OBJECTIVE: While internationally major disasters occur frequently, for any one country they are unusual events. In this project we aimed to identify public health issues arising from the physical and mental health symptoms suffered by the soldier volunteers deployed in an emergency relief task during the Wenchuan earthquake. METHODS: Health problems identified in other emergency volunteer populations guided the development of a questionnaire. A cohort of 1,187 soldier volunteers completed the questionnaire, which measured physical and mental health symptoms during their rescue mission. The results were compared with a population norm of soldiers, although baseline data of the respondents were unavailable. RESULTS: Half the respondents reported suffering from skin and mucous membrane problems, followed by respiratory symptoms (38%), digestive (29%) and nervous (22%) symptoms. Despite a low response rate (53%) to the mental health component, nearly half (49%) of those who did respond reported mental health problems. The incidence of the above symptoms were significantly higher than the general soldier population. CONCLUSIONS: Health complaints were common in the soldiers, who had not received any formal training in rescue operations. IMPLICATIONS: Non-professional rescue workers who are not appropriately prepared for the role may suffer more than their professional counterparts. Attention needs to be paid to the health and safety of non-professional rescue workers, which has been ignored in most disaster management plans. These findings can be used to enhance the understanding of emergency response programs within and outside China, where this particular disaster occurred.