Sobering up, Soldiering on
Study finds combat kills linked to less alcoholism
Killing for your country is a dark duty. It’s enough to drive many men to drink. But not Army Sergeant First Class Bill Wilson.
“I don’t touch alcohol now because it causes me to have dreams that I don’t want to remember,” said Wilson (not his real name). He served six tours of Iraq and one tour of Afghanistan.
There was a time when he drank too much. But combat kills have, in a way, sobered him.
“I never want to be at a point where I don’t know what’s going on.”
Refusing to take the easy way out of trying to drown brutal memories in drink requires a certain moral fortitude. While many returning warriors struggle with alcohol, those who kill may, ironically, have more success in taming the beast in the bottle.
A recent study found that for service members deployed during the Iraq War, military combat doubled rates of alcohol abuse. But this study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, showed that one potent stressor, killing in combat, was actually linked to lower rates of excessive drinking.
While combat doubles rates of alcohol abuse, killing in combat was linked to lower rates of excessive drinking.
“We were very surprised by the findings,” Cristel Russell, an author of the study and professor at American University, told the university’s media relations team. “Most previous research supported the prediction that more traumatic experiences would lead to more negative health outcomes, such as alcohol abuse.”
The findings come from an anonymous survey of soldiers in the Army National Guard Infantry Brigade right before deployment to Iraq. They were again surveyed three months after returning. The survey of 1,397 people pre-deployment and 1,868 people post-deployment was conducted between 2005 and 2006. Of those surveyed, 273 completed both and the findings were based on those solders.
Of the soldiers in the study, the majority had not killed in combat. Of the few who had, fewer of them reported alcohol abuse after returning from combat. Alcohol abuse was determined by the soldiers’ answers to two questions: Did you drink more than you planned in the past month? Did you feel that you needed to cut down in drinking in the past month? Soldiers who said yes to either question were categorized as abusers.
The authors speculated that the decrease in alcohol abuse may result from an increased awareness of life’s value.
The authors speculated that the decrease in alcohol abuse may result from an increased awareness of life’s value. They reasoned that killing may make death more salient, so this subset of soldiers may rethink their own life choices when they return from combat. After they’ve confronted death, they may place greater value on their own life. As a result, they may cut back their drinking.
Russell suggests the relationship between traumatic experiences and alcohol abuse is not straightforward.
“Just because you experienced something very stressful does not necessarily lead to more consumption of alcohol,” he said. “For some individuals, as we saw in this study, the opposite can happen. And while we do not yet have all the answers, this study shows that we need to be open to multiple trajectories.”
What the study shows is that trauma and addiction are not destinies for servicemen and women who have lived death. For some, the brutality of military carnage can become an opportunity for growth — and a new lease on a life less dependent on unhealthy crutches, like alcohol.
“I don’t think you can drink your sorrows away,” Wilson said.
Sober living, for him, is a better way to leave the past behind.