Military members and veterans are more likely to have faced childhood trauma than civilians, according to a new study. Researchers say the results support the notion that, for some, enlistment serves as an escape from troubled upbringings.
The study, published online last week by the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry, is the largest yet to examine the frequency of bad childhood experiences among military men and women. One of its more striking findings: More than 25 percent of military men during the all-volunteer era had experienced at least four childhood traumas compared with about 13 percent of civilian men.
“These results suggest that, since the beginning of the all-volunteer U.S. military in 1973, there has been a meaningful shift in childhood experiences among men who have served in the military,”said lead author John Blosnich, a researcher at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System. He said research is needed “to explore whether the differences in adverse childhood experiences are associated with health outcomes among men and women with military service history.”
The study involved nearly 10,000 current and former service members, mostly men,and about 51,000 civilians. It included questions about unwanted sexual contact, exposure to domestic violence, household drug use, incarcerated family members, and parents’ divorces. The authors note the results came from government surveys in 10 states and Washington, D.C., and might not be nationally representative.
Sexual abuse and other traumatic childhood experiences can increase risks for depression, anxiety, drug use, and suicide later on. The study results might offer insight into troubling rates of some of those problems that have been found in active service members, though the new report lacks information on the adults’ current mental health. Previous research has found that escape from troubles was among reasons some people enlisted. Traumatic childhood experiences have been linked with post-traumatic stress in service members.
Maj. James Brindle, a Defense Department spokesman, said his department is reviewing the study, which was funded partly by the Department of Veterans Affairs. “It is too early to speculate on any possible future changes to department policies,” said Brindle. Current pre-enlistment mental health screening does not include questions about childhood trauma.
Though most of the study participants were men, the few differences among women included household physical abuse, which was more common among military women than civilians in the draft and volunteer eras. Overall, differences among women in military service and those outside of it were less notable than among men, with less variation between eras.
“We suspect one reason for this is that women were not subjected to the draft, so the life histories of women who chose to serve in the military may have remained relatively constant,” Blosnich said.