STUTTGART, Germany — Those who have served in the military are more likely to have suffered childhood abuse or to have lived in homes where there was violence than their nonmilitary counterparts, a study says.
The findings, released Wednesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggest that the military could serve as a refuge for those seeking to escape troubled home lives. The research also could provide the military with added insight into its struggle to curb suicide in the ranks, as people who have experienced severe childhood abuse are at a higher risk of attempting suicide.
Still, researchers cautioned that it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from the study, which was a secondary analysis of data from a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.
The data “leads to a lot of additional questions,” said researcher Robert Bossarte, director of the Epidemiology program of the post-deployment health group in the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Public Health, an expert on suicide prevention, and one of the lead authors of the study.
While there is well-established research that points to a connection between severe childhood abuse and assorted health issues later in life, researchers were hesitant to draw a clear connection between the study’s findings and military suicide rates or other health issues.
“We don’t know anything about whether or not these early life adversities are actually impacting the health of servicemembers,” said co-author John Blosnich of the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System. Such questions should be explored in future research, he said.
Blosnich, along with other Veterans Affairs and academic researchers, analyzed surveys of more than 60,000 people — conducted in 2010 by the centers for disease control and prevention across 10 states and the District of Columbia — to determine whether there was a link between exposure to adverse childhood events and military service. What the researchers found was that both men and women who have served since the draft ended were more likely to have experienced a wide range of childhood adversity than those who never joined the military. Exposure to abuse was particularly high among men, who had twice the prevalence of all forms of sexual abuse than their nonmilitary male peers.
While military women also experienced elevated rates of childhood physical and emotional abuse, their overall rates were closer to their nonmilitary counterparts than those of men, indicating that women are less inclined to see the military as a safe escape from domestic violence.
“One explanation may be that because men tend to be the perpetrators of interpersonal violence against women, women survivors may not view the military, an institution comprised mostly of men, to be a safe option,” the study said.
Exposure to severe childhood abuse, whether physical or emotional, can have long-term health consequences, including linkages to post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and risk for suicide, according to the study authors.
The findings come as the military continues to struggle with how to deal with high rates of suicide in the ranks, which increased slightly in the first part of 2014.
Among active-duty military there were 161 confirmed or suspected suicides as of July 14, compared with 154 during the same time frame in 2013, The Associated Press reported.
While combat-related stress can be one cause for suicide, there are a host of other factors that come into play, including family and financial troubles and history of abuse.
Nearly half of suicides among active-duty personnel have been among people who have never deployed to war zones, according to the study, which cited a Defense Department report from 2011.
People with at least one so-called adverse childhood experience, which includes physical abuse or growing up in homes where there was violence, were more than twice as likely to report a suicide attempt, according to the study. Meanwhile, people with adverse events in four or more categories were nearly four times as likely to report having attempted suicide.
Researchers examined “adverse childhood events” in 11 categories, including living with someone who is mentally ill, alcoholic or incarcerated, as well as witnessing partner violence, being physically abused, touched sexually or forced to have sex.
The study’s authors also compared military service during the all-volunteer era to the pre-1973 draft era.
During the all-volunteer era, men with military service had a higher prevalence of “adverse childhood events” in all 11 categories examined than those without military service.
Meanwhile, during the draft era, the only difference among men was in household drug use, where men with military service had a lower prevalence than men without military service.