“An army is a minature of the society which produces it.”
– C.L.R. James
On a recent road trip to enjoy the spring weather, my husband and I stopped at a convenience store near the Georgia-South Carolina state line to fill up our car with gas. When we walked in, we found the store was a sea of green — a group of soldiers had just completed basic training at Fort Benning, GA, and were stocking up on snacks and soft drinks as they headed up I-85 to a new posting in Virginia.
We struck up a conversation with some of the young men and were impressed by their confidence and maturity. They told us about their training and their plans for the future; one announced excitedly that he would be moving on to military police school soon. They were proud young men, ready and willing to do what was necessary to protect their country.
As we got in the car and drove away, I looked back and watched the young soldiers, who had been so serious and polite with us. Outside the store, they were now play-wrestling with their buddies, guzzling Red Bull drinks and laughing too loudly at each other’s jokes. If you disregarded the high-and-tight haircuts and the fatigues, they looked just like any other teenagers or 20-somethings.
Military healthcare providers understand that fundamental truth about the admirable young men and women who make up the active-duty military: While they are brave soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who take seriously their mission to protect the United States, they also are, in many cases, youngsters not that far removed from high school and hanging out at the mall.
Like their civilian counterparts, young servicemembers don’t always make the best choices when it comes to their health and well-being. As detailed in U.S. Medicine over the last year, military medical leadership has had to grapple with such issues as overuse of energy drinks, ingestion of risky body-building supplements, experimentation with “designer” drugs and lack of sleep among troops.
Prevention and health training of young troops is essential to maintain their fitness and readiness for duty, and the 2013 Compendium of Federal Medicine discusses some of those issues. One article describes preventive efforts by the Air Force to ensure that airmen wear headgear and use sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and its most dangerous manifestation — melanoma. The successful program has driven down melanoma rates among young airmen, even though military personnel spend more time outdoors and exposed to the sun.
Another article deals with an even more disturbing issue: the soaring rates of unintended pregnancy among active-duty troops. Even though contraceptives are available free of charge to military personnel, the rates are already 50% higher than among civilians. The Navy, which is facing some of the highest increases among sailors and Marines, has a new program to address the issue.
Unplanned pregnancies are not only the result of lack of knowledge or planning related to contraceptives, but also are associated with the alarmingly high rate of military sexual assault, which has been a critical focus of military leadership and a challenge for behavioral health providers.
That situation underscores another reality faced by military healthcare providers: While the medical issues faced by active-duty troops might be similar to the civilian world, conditions unique to wartime or the military often make them far more complex.