Troubled childhoods may prompt military volunteers

In the era of the all-volunteer U.S. military, men who served are more than twice as likely as those who never did to have been sexually abused as children and to have grown up around domestic violence and substance abuse, a new study has found.

The analysis showed that the differences did not exist before 1973, when the draft was still in effect.

The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, did not look at why men with difficult upbringings were drawn to the military, but other researchers said the camaraderie and the opportunity to relocate far from home were probably major factors.

The military can serve as a surrogate family, “a group that has ties that will last a lifetime,” said Glen Elder, a University of North Carolina sociologist who has studied people’s motivations for enlisting.

The study relied on 2010 data from Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an extensive telephone survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 60,000 adults in 10 states and the District of Columbia answered demographic questions — including veteran status — and indicated which in a series of 11 “adverse childhood experiences” applied to them.

Among the men who served in the all-volunteer force, 43 percent reported emotional abuse, 34 percent said alcohol was abused at home, 27 percent were exposed to domestic violence, 12 percent had a household member who was incarcerated and 11 percent had been touched sexually.

The researchers compared them to men who turned 18 after the draft ended but never served. On each of the 11 items, veterans were roughly twice as likely to answer “yes,” according to a statistical analysis taking into account age, race and education levels.

In the draft era, however, the rates were elevated for only two items — parental separation and alcohol abuse — and by less than a third in both cases.

The analysis found a different story for women, who were never subjected to the draft.

Regardless of whether they served before or after 1973, women with military histories were more likely than their non-veteran counterparts to answer “yes” to several items — including emotional abuse and household alcohol problems and violence. Overall, however, the differences were less pronounced than they were for men in the all-volunteer era.

John Blosnich, a Department of Veterans Affairs researcher in Pittsburgh who led the study, said that because many women with difficult childhoods were victimized by men, the male-dominated military may not hold the same attraction as it does for men.

In surveys of military personnel, most say they joined for patriotic or economic reasons. But researchers not involved in the study said they were not surprised that many had rough childhoods.

“The force has been disproportionately recruited from people from single-parent households or the foster care system,” said David Segal, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and expert on military personnel issues.

In most cases, they turn out to be fine service members, he said.

But given a well-established association between childhood trauma and mental health problems, experts also said the findings should be of concern to the military, which has been struggling with surges in suicide, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

While the recent wars have fueled those problems, they are not the only factor. More than half the military suicides in the last several years were people who never deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, suggesting that pre-existing conditions played a role.

“We know that having PTSD before joining the Army is a super strong predictor for developing PTSD when the next terrible thing happens to you,” said Ron Kessler, a Harvard University sociologist and suicide expert.

His own research has found that 20 percent of service members suffer from common mental illnesses before enlistment.

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