Veterans Who Killed in Combat Struggled Less With Alcohol After

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U.S. Army National Guardsman Spc. Bernard Mendoza, 24, watches for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 22, 2011 in Nogales, Arizona.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Thanks to more than a decade of war — and the resultant media and pop-culture treatments of it — a certain view of the modern combat experience has taken hold of the popular consciousness: Members of the armed service go to war in the Middle East, experience horrible things, come home, and sink into despair and possibly substance abuse, struggling to readjust and get over post-traumatic stress disorder. A new study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence suggests that while there’s obviously some truth to this narrative, in certain cases, those who face difficult combat experiences can actually emerge better off — at least when it comes to alcohol consumption and abuse.

For the study, the researchers surveyed a bunch of National Guard soldiers before and after their deployments, gathering details such as their drinking habits and which combat experiences they went through. Unsurprisingly, they found that on the whole, simply being deployed made you more likely to drink, and to do so problematically. This fits into common ideas about self-medication as a means of dealing with stress. 

Nestled in these findings, though, was a surprise: The only significant correlation between drinking habits and a particular combat experience was with the experience of killing someone. And killing someone in combat is correlated with less problematic drinking.

The researchers note that the idea that some people come out of traumatic situations stronger than they previously were isn’t a new one, so their findings do fit into a preexisting conceptual framework — even if they also run contrary to certain previous research. They explain:

One likely explanation for these results is that this study is the first to account for pre-drinking and, as such, to isolate the role of intermediary explanations such as CEs. Killing experiences mayactivate the soldiers’ mortality salience and trigger a self-preservation focus that manifests itself in reduced risky alcohol consumption. Future research could explore this intriguing possibility.

At the risk of severe mawkishness, then, the researchers are basically saying that it may be that killing someone shows you the value of human life, including your own, and reduces certain tendencies toward impulsive, risky behavior.

More and better work on this subject is needed, as the researchers themselves attest, but it’s a potentially important concept. If there are ways to lessen the blow of combat trauma, or to give veterans the tools to integrate their experiences into a new, healthier conception of who they are, then further research is definitely warranted.