HEIDELBERG, Germany — Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan appear to have had at least one surprising health benefit for the U.S. miltary: Fewer barroom brawls and other opportunities for ending up in the hospital with a fractured skull.

According to a new study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, the rate of military members being hospitalized for assault-related injuries has significantly fallen since repeated war deployments began in 2003. The rate went from 3.59 of every 10,000 servicemembers being hospitalized with injuries from assault in 1998 to 2.54 per 10,000 last year.

“What we think it represents is taking young military members out of the circumstances where they would have mixed alcohol and boredom,” said Col. Bob DeFraites, a preventive medicine doctor and the director of the center. “There’s just not the opportunity for the assaults. Not that that’s a better thing.”

The study, recently published in the center’s Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, looked at reports from U.S. military hospitals worldwide from 1998 through summer of last year to chart the number of admissions for injuries received in assaults.

The study found that over that nine-year period, 4,105 servicemembers — most of them young and male — were hospitalized for injuries related to “non-combat assaults and fighting.” During that period, 104 servicemembers were hospitalized twice, and two were hospitalized three times for assault-related injuries.

More than half the injuries involved head trauma or brain injury, and more than 40 percent included a fractured skull. Overall, about one in 30 did not survive, the study found.

“These people are either being struck with a blunt object or are hitting their heads on the floor,” DeFraites said. “This is the part of the iceberg we can see.”

Lesser injuries, in which servicemembers went to the emergency room but were not admitted, those who sought no treatment and those who were involved in assaults but said otherwise, were not counted.

DeFraites said the study, the first of its kind in eight years, was done because injuries of all types — including car crashes, sports injuries and training accidents — are the leading cause of death and illness among servicemembers.

“Assault is one of the few that’s intentional. That’s one of the reasons we were interested,” DeFraites said.

The study found that an increasing number of servicemembers involved in assaults requiring hospitalization had been diagnosed in the previous year with a mental disorder — most often alcohol abuse or dependency — up from 18 percent in 1998 to more than 40 percent last year.

That finding is in keeping with a health behavior survey published last year that showed increasing rates of heavy drinking in the force.

“When you’re home, there may be situations where alcohol becomes the center of your activities. It’s like the perfect storm,” DeFraites said. “Maybe this is an area that doesn’t get enough attention paid to it. If there’s an intervention, especially in terms of alcohol use, it should warrant a second or third look.”

The study noted that from 1998 to 2001, the largest number of assault-related admissions was on New Year’s Day, that July and September were the months with the most admissions and that December and February were the months with the fewest.

“Rates were more than twice as high among males than females and were higher among 19-22 year-olds, junior enlisted, never married, those in combat occupations, and members of the Army and Marine Corps compared to their respective counterparts,” the study found.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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