The Effect of Combat Exposure on Risky Health Behaviors: New Evidence from the Global War on Terrorism

Resul Cesur, University of Connecticut
Alexander Chesney, San Diego State University

Using data drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and the 2008 Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Active Duty Personnel (HRB), we exploit a natural experiment in overseas deployment assignment to identify the causal effect of combat exposure on the probability of subsequent cigarette consumption, binge drinking, and drug use. We find that active duty personnel assigned to combat zones with enemy firefight are more likely to subsequently engage in risky health behaviors than their counterparts deployed to non-combat zones or to combat zones without enemy firefight. These findings are robust to controls for soldiers’ propensity to engage in risky behaviors prior to deployment and are generally larger for those serving in the Army. Our results suggest that the adverse psychological consequences of combat can explain one-half to two-thirds of the estimated association between combat exposure and risky health behaviors.

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Presented in Session 54: Causal Approaches to Health and Health Behaviors