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CHICAGO — Childhood traumas are more common among military members and veterans than among 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 is the largest to examine how common bad childhood experiences are among military men and women. Disparities were most striking among men during the volunteer era: More than 25 percent had experienced at least four childhood traumas, versus 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."
Nearly 10,000 current and former service members — mostly men — were included, plus about 51,000 civilians. The authors note the results came from government surveys in 10 states and Washington, D.C., and may not be nationally representative.
The events studied included unwanted sexual contact, exposure to domestic violence, household drug use, incarcerated family members and parents' divorce.
Sexual abuse and other bad childhood experiences can increase risks for depression, anxiety, drug use and suicide later on. The study results thus might offer insight into troubling rates of some of these problems that have been found in active service members, although the new report lacks information on the adults' current mental health.
Previous research has found that escape from troubles was among reasons some enlisted, and has linked traumatic childhood experiences with post-traumatic stress in service members.
David Rudd, scientific director of the nonprofit National Center for Veterans Studies, said the study suggests there may be a need to improve screening and placement of service members. Current screening involves questions about mental illness, not childhood trauma, he said. But, for example, those with a history of childhood sexual abuse may be particularly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress if placed in combat, said Rudd, a psychologist and president of the University of Memphis.
Maj. James Brindle, a Defense Department spokesman, said the department is reviewing the study "but it is too early to speculate on any possible future changes to department policies." That agency wasn't involved in the research, which was funded partly by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The study was published online Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.
The authors note that most people with bad childhoods can lead healthy lives, and that most people who enlist in the military "do so for positive reasons, including patriotism, altruism and self-improvement."
The authors analyzed 2010 behavioral health surveys sponsored by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by state health departments. The telephone surveys include a core set of questions and optional ones states can add. The study involved adults in 10 states and Washington, D.C., that added questions about bad childhood experiences.
The few differences among women included household physical abuse, which was more common among military women than civilians in the draft and volunteer eras. But overall, differences among women with and without military service 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.