Veterans’ Horrible Health

What’s the worst thing you can do for your long-term health? Well, heroin is bad, and cigarettes may be worse. But, for Americans at least, military service is far more damaging to your health than any harmful habit. Military veterans have worse physical and mental health in almost every category that has been studied.

I’m not talking about the risk of death and serious injury from combat. I’m not talking about the chronic pain and depression that affect huge numbers of veterans. I’m not even talking about the extraordinary number of veterans who commit suicide or murder others. The fact is that, even if they avoid these terrible outcomes, veterans are much more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and all manner of other chronic conditions.

Veterans are 25% to 75% more likely to develop lung cancer than the general public. Diabetes is considered a combat-related condition for Vietnam vets because of the herbicide Agent Orange, to which many soldiers and even more Vietnamese were exposed. However, among all veterans of all wars, the rate of diabetes is more than twice the rate in the general population.

Why should this be? The authorities blame veterans’ “lifestyle,” as they blame most people who are sick. But could veterans really have such a dramatically different lifestyle? Does that even make sense? And if it’s not behavior, what is causing the illness?

As I wrote in my book, the first factor is obviously stress. Military service in a war zone is stressful and traumatic, whether you are physically wounded or not. Feeling constantly in danger will wear out your immune system and create insulin resistance. Using violence against others is also traumatic.

Trauma, if not treated and resolved, can leave your body stressed for life. It’s no wonder veterans have high rates of drinking and smoking, both of which are stress relievers. Some may also medicate with sugars, which can temporarily reduce stress. Even without problem behaviors, chronic stress tends to raise blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) leads to much higher rates of heart disease and cardiac death.

PTSD is also associated with higher levels of arthritis, respiratory system-related problems and diseases, digestive problems and diseases and reproductive system-related problems.

Agent Orange was one major pollutant, but the Pentagon uses all kinds of chemicals and now uses the radioactive weapon depleted uranium as well. Many closed military bases become Superfund sites because they are so polluted. The communities near those bases suffer, but soldiers have an even higher exposure to these pollutants because they live among them. As I’ve been reporting Diabetes Self-Management, pollution has strong links with diabetes.

Serving in war will likely damage your health for the rest of your life. You might not even secure disability benefits. Writer Joshua Kors has been documenting the Veterans Administration (VA)’s denial of benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers with brain injury. 22,600 of these veterans have been disqualified for benefits because the government claims that “pre-existing personality disorders,” not trauma, were causing their problems.

The military’s ads are everywhere, and they make service seem so exciting. American society glorifies military service above all other callings. To attract new blood into the system, they must lie about the reality of service and its aftermath. We need to provide young people with the truth.

According to the recruiters, you’ll be serving your country, learning skills, and having adventures. You’ll be part of a team that can last you a lifetime. We need to tell our young friends that it’s not true. They’ll be traumatized from the beginning of basic training until the day they get out. Their incomes will be lower than non-veterans, and they will be much more likely to wind up homeless. Their health will be damaged in a dozen different ways. The effects will, indeed, last them a lifetime, but not in a positive way.

  • A version of this article first appeared in Word OUT.
  • David Spero is an author and an activist for peace, ecology, and Palestinian rights, living in San Francisco. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.