- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

U.S. military personnel have turned more to drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and praying to God in recent years to cope with stress in the ongoing war on terrorism.

A slim majority of men, and an even a larger share of women, say they turn to prayer when in particularly tough situations, according to the 2002 Survey of Health Related Behaviors released at the Pentagon yesterday.

Robert Bray, whose Research Triangle Institute conducted the voluntary survey of 12,500 military respondents at 30 installations, said service members offered several ways they deal with stress in the workplace and on the battlefield.

“A good number, over half, say that they play sports or engage in a hobby,” Mr. Bray told reporters at the Pentagon. “We also see that saying a prayer is a common strategy for about half of the men and 70 percent of military women.”

On a negative note, the survey picked up an increase in vices — tobacco and alcohol — between 1998, when the last health survey was done, and the one taken in 2002. It was the eighth such survey since 1980, a 24-year span that overall shows a decline in alcohol, drug and cigarette use.

The Army has experienced a rash of suicides among soldiers fighting in Iraq, a highly stressful combat environment where insurgents and foreign fighters mount deadly attacks almost on a daily basis.

But force-wide, the military’s suicide rate of around 10 per 100,000 annually remains well below that of the civilian world of 20 per 100,000.

Heavy consumption of alcohol increased from 15.4 percent of respondents to 18.1 percent — a jump considered significant by statisticians. The Pentagon defines heavy drinking as consuming five or more drinks at one occasion, at least once a week.

“We are concerned with the slight increases in smoking and heavy alcohol use since 1998,” said William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. “These findings, along with indicators of stress and mental health, are not entirely surprising, given our role in the military in recent world events at that period of time, 2002 and 2001.”

The use of illegal drugs continues to decline, down from a high of 27 percent in 1980 to around 3 percent during the last 10 years.

But smoking, after a 20-year decline, is increasing again on a time line that follows the post-September 11 war on al Qaeda and other terror groups. Cigarette use fell from 51 percent to 30 percent by 1998, but drifted back up to 34 percent in 2002.

Other findings:

• The 1.4 million-member active force, like the population as a whole, is getting fatter.

• More than 65 percent of respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their work assignments. The Marine Corps (66 percent) and Air Force (70 percent) recorded the highest rate of contentment. The Army was the lowest at 61 percent. The Navy showed 64 percent.

• While most people turned to prayer or a friend’s advice to deal with stress, 40 percent turned to food and 25 percent to alcohol or cigarettes to cope.

“Men were more likely than women to light a cigarette or have a drink, whereas women were more likely than men to talk to a friend or family member, to say a prayer or to get something to eat,” the survey’s executive summary said.

• Only 42 percent of sexually active unmarried personnel use condoms during intercourse. A sexually active person is described as one who had intercourse in the 12 months prior to the survey. The report says the goal is to increase condom use to 50 percent by 2010.

“This finding suggests that the military will need to focus additional attention on this area,” the report states.

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