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What is life in the military actually like?

More from readers of last week's inaugural column: On the one hand, several people argued that military benefits aren't all they're cracked up to be, and pointed to high levels of poverty and homelessness among veterans, food stamp use by active duty personnel, and other problems. Similarly, several readers noted that financial benefits can hardly compensate military personnel for the danger, the disruptions to family life, and the high suicide and divorce rates.

On the other hand, some readers argued that the risks and problems associated with military service are often de-contextualized, and that if all factors are considered, military personnel have no more reason to complain than many civilians. The military may be a dangerous and important career, but it's no more so than several other occupations, and the risks depend greatly on which branch of the service we're talking about.

My own view? Little here is black and white. I'm not very interested in questions about whether particular groups "deserve" this or that; I'm more interested in getting a nuanced and fact-based view of what's actually happening out there, how we came to the place we're at, and where we might be able to go from here.

To that end, I've been doing some research on the issues mentioned above. Here's some of what I've gleaned so far (still much more research to be done, so take this for what it is: preliminary). I'll leave readers to decide for themselves what it all means.

Veterans:

Within the adult civilian population of the U.S. overall, about one person in 10 is a veteran. Veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless, however: As of 2011, roughly one in seven homeless Americans was a veteran.

According to USA Today, ex-servicemembers under the age of thirty make up only 5 percent of the nation's veterans, but they make up 9 percent of the population of homeless veterans.

That's not because veterans are less-educated that other Americans. On the contrary, as a group, veterans are less likely to have dropped out of high school and more likely to have some college or an associates degree.

Suicide and divorce in the military:

DoD statistics show military suicides at a record high. According to the New York Times, military personnel are slightly more likely than the general civilian population to die as a result of suicide: In 2008, there were 20 suicides out of every 100,000 members of the military population, while the figure for civilians was 18 per 100,000. These figures change when you adjust them to reflect for age: comparing military personnel to comparably-aged civilians, military personnel were actually less likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts, according to a 2012 report by the Armed Services Health Surveillance Center.

How about divorce? Counter-intuitively, members of the military are less likely than civilians to get divorced, the strain of deployments notwithstanding. Depending on which demographic slice of the military you look at, however (enlisted versus officers, men versus women, older versus younger, different service branches and occupational specialties, etc.), the statistics change.

How dangerous is military service?

This seems like it should be an easy question to answer, but it's actually a rather difficult one, since it's hard to get apples to apples comparisons. Some data points:

The Armed Services Health Surveillance Center reports that from 1990 through 2011, about 29,000 U.S. military personnel died of all causes (combat deaths, illness, accident, homicide, suicide, etc.), leading to an average "crude mortality rate" per 100,000 person-years of 77.5. (In other words, in any given year, an average of 77.5 military personnel out of each 100,000 could be expected to die.)

Although those statistics cover two decades that included the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military mortality rate remained substantially lower than the crude mortality rate among civilians aged 15-44, which was 127.5 per 100,000 person-years in 2005.

Does this make the military a safer career choice than others? Not necessarily: The military only accepts reasonably fit and healthy people, and it's hard to determine the self-selection effects.

Another way to measure danger is to look at on-the-job deaths. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2010 fatality rate per 100,000 workers was 116 for the fishing industry, 92 for the logging industry and 71 for airline pilots.

How about differences between services and occupational specialties? Unsurprisingly, combat occupational specialties increase your risk of death: Across all services, the mortality rate for those in combat-specific occupations was 128.5 per 100,000 person-years. Comparing the services, mortality rates were highest for Marines (104 per 100,000 person-years) and the Army (96/100,000). In contrast, the Air Force had a mortality rate of 33.4 per 100,000 person years, making it a less dangerous occupation than farming, ranching, and operating mining machines, and about on a par with roofing.

Are these lies, damn lies, or just statistics? You tell me. Please add to my knowledge bank or correct my glaring errors by sending me an email.

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