Painful Childhoods May Prompt Some to Enlist

Military service and adverse childhood events linked in recent study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) For kids who grow up in hostile homes, adverse experiences are common. And for some people, joining the armed forces may be an attempt to leave a negative home life behind.

A recent study found that differences in adverse childhood experiences indicated that some people used military service as a way to escape from harsh homes.

The researchers concluded that some individuals who volunteered for military service did so because of a high rate of adverse childhood experiences.

"Speak with a psychiatrist about unresolved childhood issues."

The research was conducted by John R. Blosnich, PhD, MPH, from the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Pittsburgh, PA, and colleagues.

The study included data collected in 2010 for the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which included nearly 10,000 current and former service members — mostly men — and about 51,000 civilians. The study participants were separated by gender, history of military service and whether they were at least 18 years old by 1973.

The US moved from the draft to a volunteer military force in 1973, so researchers separated participants who reported military service into two groups: draft-era people who were older than 18 in 1973 and all-volunteer-era people who turned 18 during or after 1973.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study measured links between childhood abuse and later-life health and well-being.

The survey used for this study included 11 problems a person could have before the age of 18, which ranged from divorce, living with a person who had a substance abuse problem, or being physically or mentally abused.

Approximately 13 percent of the participants reported a history of military service. Those participants had greater odds of reporting a history of ACEs.

Men who volunteered for military service had higher rates of ACEs in all 11 categories. Men who volunteered for military service had twice the odds (11 percent) of reporting forced sex before the age of 18 — compared to men who had not served (4.8 percent).

However, men who were drafted into the military (2.1 percent) reported lower rates of household drug use than those who had not served (3.3 percent).

The study authors found only a small number of differences in ACEs among women with and without a history of military service. Women who volunteered reported higher rates of physical abuse, domestic violence, and emotional and sexual abuse than women who had not volunteered.

The researchers noted even fewer differences among women who served in the military during the draft era. More women who served then reported physical abuse, domestic violence and emotional abuse than women who had not served.

The researchers listed some study limitations. The ACEs survey asked participants about experiences prior to age 18, which may have flawed the data if participants were unable to recall information accurately. Also, a small sample size of women with a history of military service limited their ability to detect ACE differences. Additionally, participant military records lacked confirmation.

The investigators said additional research is needed to understand the link between ACEs and military service. Providing a better understanding of how ACEs affect people may better the lives and health of both current and former service members, the study authors wrote.

This study was published July 2014 in JAMA Psychiatry. Awards from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Health Administration supported the research.

The researchers reported no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
July 28, 2014
Last Updated:
July 30, 2014