Service members, check your email for an invitation to participate in a survey that will help researchers track health risks of deployment, military occupations and general military service for decades.

The emails were going out this week to the DoD-registered email addresses of 500,000 service members, as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, the largest and longest running health study of military personnel across the services. Active duty, Reserve and National Guard are invited to take part in the survey, which takes about 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Those invited to participate are service members with one to five years of service.

But there won’t be questions about COVID-19, although it would be interesting to add that to the mix of health effects over the long term. Because it’s been administered since 2001 with similar questions, they didn’t include questions related to COVID-19 on the current survey. However, researchers do collect data on relevant topics such as current physical and mental health, life stress, employment and financial status, said John Marciano, spokesman for the Naval Health Research Center. The researchers have asked for COVID questions to be included in some upcoming surveys, he said.

Researchers want these service members to participate for at least the next 50 years, by filling out additional surveys every three to five years. They’ll be recruiting new enrollees for the program through June, 2021.

The study began in 2001 with 77,047 participants selected through scientific random sampling methods. The goal is to understand the long-term health and well-being of service men and women, in order to improve military readiness and protect the health of military personnel, veterans and their families. New participants are added periodically; researchers are tracking about 200,000 participants in the study, expected to continue through at least 2068.

Newly enrolled participants will provide an opportunity to shed light on the experiences of current service members, which may be different than those of the service members and veterans who have participated in the first two decades of the study, Marciano said.

Of the current participants, about 61 percent have deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; 42 percent are veterans; 44 percent are members of the Guard or Reserve; and 31 percent are women.

The study is part of the Deployment Health Research department, at the Naval Health Research Center. This is in addition to other DoD surveys that track similar issues through surveys with different random scientific samplings every several years. But the Millennium Cohort Study tracks health effects by following the same service members and veterans over the long term.

The research from these surveys has resulted in dozens of studies on a variety of topics related to service member and veteran health, such as respiratory health after military service in southwest Asia and Afghanistan; links between post traumatic stress disorder symptoms and subsequent problem drinking; and sleep patterns before, during and after deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few.

Survey participants answer questions about their general health and well-being; their health behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use, eating behaviors, sleep, physical activity; their health conditions and symptoms such as diagnosed medical conditions, physical symptoms, mental health assessments and pregnancy and infertility; use of health care and preventive care; potential exposures such as combat experiences, injuries, burn pits and assault; military life such as status, deployments, occupation, perception of the military; and other topics such as employment, education, homelessness and stressful events such as financial problems or divorce.

The information from the surveys is used for medical research purposes only, and isn’t available to service members’ superiors or promotion boards.

The study was recommended by Congress and the Institute of Medicine in 1999, in response to concerns about the health effects of deployments following the 1991 Gulf War — before the post-9/11 conflicts.

“Although the original designers of the Millennium Cohort Study could not foresee the post-2001 military conflicts, the project is perfectly positioned to address health outcomes related to these operations,” the Millennium Cohort website states.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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