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The aftermath of war: UK military personnel 'at increased risk of violent offending'

UK military personnel deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan with direct combat exposure were 53 per cent more likely to commit a violent offence than men serving in a non-combat role, according to the Lancet.

Image: Danny Lawson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

MILITARY PERSONNEL WHO have served in the UK Armed Forces are more likely to commit a violent offence during their lifetime than their civilian counterparts, according to new research published as part of a study into the Iraq War.

The study, conducted by leading medical journal The Lancet, found that the proportion of young servicemen (aged under 30 years) with a conviction for violent offending was much higher than among men of a similar age in the general population (20.6 per cent vs 6.7 per cent).

In the first large-scale study of its kind, it linked data from 13,856 randomly selected serving and ex-serving UK military personnel with national criminal records to assess the impact of deployment (serving in Iraq or Afghanistan), combat exposure, and post-deployment mental health problems on subsequent offending behaviour.

Likelihood of lifetime violent offending

Researchers found that 17 per cent of male service personnel who took part in the study had a criminal record. It found that the overall figure for lifetime offending – with offences from theft to assault included – was lower among military men than the general population, but that lifetime violent offending – ranging from threats to serious physical assault or worse – was more common among military men (11 per cent vs 8.7 per cent).

The strongest risk factors for violent offending included a pre-military history of violence, younger age, and lower rank. Men who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan with direct combat exposure were 53 per cent more likely to commit a violent offence than men serving in a non-combat role. Witnessing traumatic events on deployment also increased the risk of violent offending. Strong predictors of subsequent violent offending also included alcohol misuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and high levels of self-reported aggressive behaviour on return from deployment.

Speaking about the findings of the study, lead researcher Dr Deirdre MacManus from King’s College London, said:

There has been a lot of media coverage and public debate about violence committed by veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our study, which used official criminal records, found that violent offending was most common among young men from the lower ranks of the Army and was strongly associated with a history of violent offending before joining the military. Serving in a combat role and traumatic experiences on deployment also increased the risk of violent behaviour.

MacManus said the findings would enable better violence risk assessment in serving and ex-serving military personnel, by drawing attention to the role of mental health problems and the potential effect that appropriate management of alcohol misuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, especially hyperarousal symptoms, and aggressive behaviour could have in reducing the risk of violence.

Informed prevention and intervention programmes for troops

David Forbes, Director of the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Australia and Richard Bryant from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia also commented on the findings, saying they show for the first time the link between combat and interpersonal violence – and “draw attention to the need for a more concerted effort to understand the specific mechanisms that affect how the experiences of combat can enhance risk of violence after deployment”. By understanding these factors, they said, more informed prevention and intervention programmes for troops as they reintegrate into civilian life could be developed.

In a Review published as part of the Lancet’s special issue on Iraq, the adverse health consequences that the 8-year-long Iraq War had on Iraqi civilians and US and other coalition military personnel and their families were outlined. Professor Barry Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, USA and Professor Victor Sidel of Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, USA described the adverse health consequences of the Iraq War (2003–11) as “profound”.

We conclude that at least 116,903 Iraqi non-combatants and more than 4,800 coalition military personnel died over the 8-year course. Many Iraqi civilians were injured or became ill because of damage to the health-supporting infrastructure of the country, and about 5 million were displaced. More than 31,000 US military personnel were injured and a substantial percentage of those deployed suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other neuropsychological disorders and their concomitant psychosocial problems.

They said that the ultimate cost of the war to the USA could be $3 trillion. “Clearly, this money could have been spent instead on domestic and global programmes to improve health,” they added.

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