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Study finds lower alcohol use among troops with combat kills

Jun. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Marines, JGSDF celebrate successful end Iron Fist
Alcohol misuse fell among troops who have killed someone in combat, according to a new study. (Marine Corps)
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New research by Army scientists appears to confirm what has been long-recognized as an unfortunate consequence of combat deployment: that troops drink more after going to war.

But the latest study of more than 1,300 National Guard members adds an unusual twist. According to the research, alcohol misuse actually fell among troops who have killed someone in combat.

To better understand the impact of combat experience on drinking behavior, researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, American University and the Uniformed Service University of the Health Sciences surveyed members of an infantry brigade combat team before and after a deployment to Iraq in 2005 and 2006.

They found a nearly 14 percent rise in drinking among the troops and a doubling of alcohol abuse rates — from nearly 9 percent to 19 percent — among the soldiers.

But only one specific combat experience appeared to play a role in influencing alcohol use after deployment: killing. And the relationship was inverse.

“We were really surprised,” said Cristel Russell, an associate professor of marketing at American University and study co-author. “Usually, experiencing traumatic events leads to an increase in substance use. But in fact, we found quite the opposite.”

According to the study, those who killed in combat were half as likely to score positive on the alcohol abuse screening test than those who had been in combat but had not taken a life.

The study surveyed volunteers on their combat experiences, include incidents of fighting, killing, threats to safety, observing traumatic events and atrocities. It also questioned troops about their alcohol use — whether they drank, how much they drank and their daily drinking habits.

The troops reported drinking more post-deployment and 16 percent of soldiers who didn’t drink beforehand admitted to consuming alcohol afterward.

But when it came to crunching the numbers to determine any relationship between specific combat experiences and drinking, there was none — except for combat kills.

The authors theorized that killing may trigger an awareness of mortality, influencing those who have taken a life to reduce risky behaviors, including problem drinking, as an act of self-preservation.

“We don’t have an exact explanation but it seems that perhaps, once they are confronted with their own mortality, it has an effect on how they see the world and as a result, they take steps to protect their own lives,” Russell said.

The study comes with caveats. The authors noted that the surveys were self-reported and soldiers were required to make judgments regarding their alcohol use or whether they needed to cut down.

And although the sample population was fairly large, a bigger group surveyed over time “would provide greater power” to the research, the authors noted.

Researchers also want to further explore the concept of “mortality salience” in wartime — the relationship between combat exposure and self-preservation.

“Maybe there are positive things that can come out of very difficult experiences,” said Russell, who became involved in the study as both an alcohol use researcher and military spouse.

“Perhaps there’s a way service members can acknowledge their experiences and look at their lives, concentrating on behaviors that will help them live better and longer.”

The study, “Changes in Alcohol Use after Traumatic Experiences: The Impact of Combat on Army National Guardsmen,” was published in the June issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

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