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Alcohol Abuse and Combat in the Military


It’s no secret, I’m a proud Marine and combat veteran. So while searching for the latest and greatest science to write about I was surprised to come across a study on combat and alcohol abuse. Thinking I already knew the answer I almost didn’t bother to read it — when I did, the results were a little surprising and I wanted to share them.

The new study, involving specifically the Army National Guard– which looked at data collected prior and post combat — revealed some interesting statistics. It showed that soldiers who kill in combat are actually less likely to abuse alcohol, which is contrary to previous research.

“We were very surprised by the findings. Most previous research supported the prediction that more traumatic experiences would lead to more negative health outcomes, such as alcohol abuse,” said Russell an associate professor of marketing with American University’s Kogod School of Business. “We found the opposite —that the most traumatic experiences of killing in combat actually led to a decrease in alcohol abuse post-deployment.”

The question was why would someone who killed in combat — regarded as one of the most difficult stressors — cause soldiers to avoid high risk behaviors like heavy drinking? As it turns out, that might be due to a higher sense of mortality and vulnerability. This then may manifest itself in reduced high-risk alcohol consumption.

For the study, Russell and her fellow researchers surveyed 1,397 members of an Army National Guard Infantry Brigade Combat Team three months before and three months after their deployment to Iraq in 2005–2006. Members of the unit completed anonymous surveys regarding behavioral health and alcohol use and, in the post-survey, the combat experiences they had during deployment.

Aside from the counterintuitive revelation that soldiers who kill in combat are less likely to abuse alcohol post-deployment, survey results revealed that the prevalence of alcohol use increased from 70.8% pre-deployment to 80.5% post-deployment and that alcohol misuse more than doubled, increasing from 8.51% before deployment to 19.15% after deployment.

The authors of the study acknowledge that future research is needed on this complex topic. Russell and her colleagues plan to explore the influence mortality salience [or the awareness of one’s mortality] has on soldiers who have killed while in combat in further detail.

“It is important for healthcare providers and researchers to better understand and account for the fact that traumatic events do not necessarily result in a negative outcome and that positive outcomes can in fact be born from traumatic events,” said Russell. “Building on these findings, future research should take into account the degree to which individuals are equipped to deal with stressful situations and assess how coping strategies may affect their behavioral response to potentially traumatic events. There may be ways to promote coping pre- or post-traumatic experiences.”

It’s no secret, combat is stressful. This was the first real study to look at data prior and post combat. Personally I’m happy that more research is being done on the effects of combat on a veteran. Because if I am honest, most days it’s harder to live with what I’ve been through, then the actual experience itself.

Russell, D., Russell, C., Riviere, L., Thomas, J., Wilk, J., & Bliese, P. (2014). Changes in alcohol use after traumatic experiences: The impact of combat on Army National Guardsmen Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 139, 47-52 DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.03.004

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