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Reservists, Especially Those With Combat Exposure, Are at Risk for Alcohol

Using alcohol to cope with negative emotions after military deployment is known to be common among active-duty servicemembers.

Using alcohol to cope with negative emotions after military deployment is known to be common among active-duty servicemembers. But a new study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggests that reservists who return home after deployment may face similar risks—possibly with less support.


Further, the situation might be more troublesome for reservists exposed to combat.


“Combat events, such as having engaged in direct combat and experienced combat trauma, may precipitate a great deal of personal discomfort (‘moral injury’), necessitating some form of self-soothing, such as excessive alcohol use,” says study author James Griffith, Ph.D., faculty member and research fellow at the University of Utah’s National Center for Veterans Studies.


In his research, Griffith looked at survey responses from Army Reserve National Guard soldiers who had recently returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2010.


Griffith used data from more than 4,500 reservists who responded to the U.S. Army’s Reintegration Unit Risk Inventory. The anonymous survey includes 80 questions about alcohol and drug use, as well as other aspects of the soldiers’ lives, such as criminal behavior, interpersonal relationships, social support and psychological distress symptoms.


He compared their responses to those of reservists who were serving their traditional part-time military role, as well as to previous research on deployed active-duty military personnel.


Overall, recently deployed and returned National Guard soldiers had higher rates of heavy drinking than non-deployed reservists in a traditional role (29.9% vs. 24.1% for heavy drinking, and 33.9% vs. 31.8% for binge drinking, respectively). The rate of drinking among deployed reservists also exceeded that for deployed military personnel in several past studies.


The most impactful factor was exposure to combat during deployment, which was associated with greater alcohol use.


Griffith says that the nature of the reserve system may contribute to members being at higher risk for alcohol use. Typically, reservists serve one weekend a month and 15 annual active-duty training days. When called up, they serve full-time for about one year. And in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, reservists constituted about 30% to 40% of the U.S. forces.


“On their return, reservists resume their part-time military service and civilian life and employment,” he says. “Unlike active-duty military personnel, reservists typically do not live near military installations to receive behavioral health care. And many are not eligible for military health care unless conditions are directly related to active-duty military service.”


Griffith says more needs to be done to help recently returning, deployed reservists, such as more thoroughly assessing alcohol risk. He also points out that the risk of unhealthy alcohol use is greatest within one year of returning—suggesting that a post-deployment educational program for servicemembers and their families on the risk factors for alcohol use could be helpful.

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