Most active-duty servicemembers have a positive view of their military service and aren't turning to alcohol or illegal drugs to cope with wartime-related stressors, according to findings from a Defense Department-sanctioned survey conducted in 2005.
"Despite the stresses of war and ongoing deployments, nearly all indicators of servicemembers' health and well-being continue to be quite good, especially when compared with civilian populations," Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said during a telephone interview with reporters.
The survey results also show that 66 percent of armed forces members polled view their military service positively and are satisfied with their jobs, Winkenwerder said, and nearly 50 percent of respondents said they'd like to serve in the military at least 20 years.
More than 16,000 active-duty military members assigned at 60 installations worldwide took part in the Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Military Personnel, which has been conducted every three to four years since 1980. The randomly selected respondents answered questions about their military service, substance abuse, deployment stress, mental health and weight management.
The survey was conducted by a DoD-contracted research firm, Winkenwerder said, and the information provides is used for programs that enhance troops' physical and mental well-being.
The survey's findings are consistent with military trends that began in the mid-1980s, said Dr. Robert M. Bray, director of the survey project for contractor RTI International. Servicemembers' use of alcohol and tobacco continues to decline, a circumstance that mirrors what's happening in civilian society, Bray said.
"Military rates of smoking are lowering to match civilian rates," Bray said.
Overall, military smoking for all age groups is at about 31 percent, according to survey data, compared to an overall civilian smoking rate of about 30 percent.
Yet, although smoking is declining within the military, servicemembers' use of smokeless tobacco has risen, Bray noted.
Regarding servicemembers' use of alcohol, heavy drinking has declined since 1988, Bray reported. "We see that the heavy drinking rate seems to be staying fairly flat," he said, noting that overall alcohol consumption in the military is going down.
In addition, overall incidence of illegal drug use by servicemembers of all ages has remained at 5 percent or lower since 1988, he said.
While more than 75 percent of survey respondents said they regularly engage in rigorous exercise, the incidence of overweight servicemembers is increasing, just like the average civilian's weight has increased over the last 10 years, Bray said. One culprit, he said, could be that the body mass index method of measure used today doesn't distinguish between fat and muscle, which weighs more.
Surveyed servicemembers reporting a lot of stress at work (32 percent) and family stress (19 percent) are similar to findings from the 2002 survey, Bray said.
The survey's findings also indicate a significant decline since 2002 in the incidence of serious injuries or accidents that put servicemembers in hospitals, Winkenwerder said. This could be partly explained by increased servicemember use of automobile seatbelts and motorcycle helmets, he said.
Just fewer than 18 percent of servicemembers surveyed said they believe they need mental health counseling, Winkenwerder said, adding that about 15 percent said they'd sought such counseling. Other respondents indicated that they'd visited a chaplain or talked things over with friends, he added.
"This is important, because I think it suggests that people are going for and receiving the mental health support and services that they need," Winkenwerder said.
In all, 56 percent of servicemembers polled said they believe it would not harm their military careers if they sought mental health help, Winkenwerder said. "We're pleased with that," he said,
Although wartime's circumstances are taxing servicemembers and their families, the survey's findings indicate that people are finding healthy ways to deal with stress. About 81 percent of survey respondents said they deal with stress by working out a plan, which may include exercise, hobbies, talking with family members or prayer, Winkenwerder said.
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