By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Making Soldier On: Life After Deployment, my documentary about three women veterans, has given me a sobering glimpse into the U.S. all-volunteer force. In 1973, Congress abolished conscription, in partial response to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. The United States now has more than 40 years experience with voluntary military service and its impact on our country.
"The gulf between civilians and the military has never been wider," said former U.S. Army captain Elizabeth Stanley at the November 2015 Omega Institute conference on the issues of trauma and resilience in veterans. Stanley carries an impressive warrior lineage – she is the ninth military generation in her family, as well as an associate professor at Georgetown University and the founder of the non-profit Mind Fitness Training Institute in Alexandria, Va. The institute teaches resilience and techniques to reduce stress and avoid or overcome trauma to both military and civilians.
Increasingly, Stanley said, the men and women who serve in the all-volunteer force are no longer representative of the country. They differ in one important dimension – mental health.
A 2014 study compared the adverse childhood experiences of individuals with and without a history of military service across eleven categories, including household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, household substance abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse.
For men, there was a marked difference between the draft and all-volunteer force eras. Prior to 1973, the only significant difference between the two groups was that men with a history of military service grew up in households with less drug use than men without any military service. Post-1973, or since the start of the all-volunteer force era, men with a history of military service have higher rates of adverse childhood experiences in all eleven categories than men without military service.
Women with a history of military service had experienced higher exposure to four out of the eleven categories: physical abuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse and being touched sexually. There were fewer differences between women pre- and post-1973, because women were not eligible to be drafted.
Earlier research had concluded that adverse childhood experiences contribute to poor adult health consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, shortened life expectancy and attempted suicide.
In fact, the results of a 2015 study, which included 1.2 million veterans (the largest number of veterans researched to date on this topic), revealed that they commit suicide at a rate 50 percent higher than civilians with similar demographic characteristics. Suicide rates are highest during the first three years out of the military. Among the veterans who participated in the study, one per day committed suicide.
Three other large-scale 2014 Army studies showed that nearly 60 percent of suicide attempts among soldiers can be traced to pre-enlistment mental disorders. Similarly, 80 percent of behavioral disorders such as attention-deficit disorder, intermittent explosive disorder (recurrent and uncontrollable anger attacks) and substance abuse began before enlistment. These behavioral disorders were much more common among young people who enlisted in the Army than those who did not and increased even more after enlistment.
"These results are a wake-up call highlighting the importance of outreach and intervention for new soldiers who enter the Army with pre-existing mental disorders," said Dr. Robert Ursano, co-principal investigator of the Army studies on mental health risk and resilience.
The arguments advanced in favor of an all-volunteer force are usually based on the cost savings that it generates for the country. Volunteers are assumed to have made a rational choice about whether or not to serve based on levels of military pay, training and future opportunities that military service will create for them compared to civilian employment and advancement opportunities.
But what if those decisions to serve in the military are not as rational as the economic model assumes?
"I had no other choice; I had no other choice," said Natasha Young, about her enlistment in the Marines at age eighteen in 1999.
Young, one of the three main characters in Soldier On, grew up in Lawrence, Mass., a once thriving mill town, now decrepit. In 2012, Boston Magazine described Lawrence as the "City of the Damned."
Growing up, Natasha suffered from all eleven of the adverse childhood experiences examined in the 2014 study of military mental health. Her public high school was de-accredited by the state of Massachusetts. Her boyfriend was a drug dealer. Unemployment and substance abuse and addiction in Lawrence are multiples of the national averages. Natasha, smart and tough, saw no way route out of the hellhole where she was born and raised other than to join the military.
Even a brief synopsis of Natasha's life story crystallizes the moral hazard risk inherent in an all-volunteer force.
In a 2014 New York Times essay, Uwe E. Reinhardt, a Princeton economics professor, outlined the relationship between moral hazard, an all-volunteer force and the likelihood of the United States engaging in wars. Since the U.S. socioeconomic class that declares war is insulated from personal risk of war by the institution of the all-volunteer force, it is more likely to engage in conflicts. The United States has now been waging its longest war, the war on terror, since 2001 with no end in sight.
Increasingly, the men and women who fight this war and bear the risks of physical and mental injury and death, do not possess equivalent power and influence over the decision whether or not the nation goes to war. Also, when they join the military, they do not have genuine free market options that they can consider and weigh rationally. Like Natasha, they are often only looking a choice between a rock and a hard place. They are without any other option than to use the military as a way to try to escape the hardships and trauma they have already experienced in their young lives.