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Combat Fatalities not the Most Common Cause of Military Deaths

posted Apr 19, 2010, 10:16 AM by CDNSOLDIER.COM Administrator   [ updated Apr 19, 2010, 10:34 AM ]
Suicide was the third leading cause of Canadian military deaths after motor vehicle accidents and cancerin a newly published study of 25 years of death records. Even though the jury is out on whether suicide prevention programs work, Lt.-Col. Homer Tien, a trauma surgeon and the lead author of the study, says the military must do its best to try to prevent suicide, alcohol abuse and smoking.

Those were the major "potentially modifiable individual behaviours" that Tien and his co-authors said accounted for one in three of the 1,710 deaths examined from 1983 through 2007.

While the military does not tolerate excessive drinking and provides alcohol rehab, the study cautioned that "alcohol use and alcohol abuse remain an important part of off-duty military culture."

The study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine attributed one in 10 of the deaths to alcohol.

There's really no way of knowing if someone would have committed suicide if they had not been drunk, Tien said in an interview. But high blood alcohol concentration was found in 70 of 289 suicides.

And 75 of 384 traffic deaths were attributed to drunk driving, the cause of a lot of carnage Tien sees in his work as trauma surgeon at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto. He is also an adviser to the surgeon general of the Canadian Forces.
Reference: Vancouver Sun

Combat fatalities are reported by the media as a frequent cause of military deaths, yet they may not reflect the most common and preventable ways that soldiers die.


The purpose of this study was to quantify the leading causes of death in the military and to identify modifiable behaviors that potentially contributed to death.


This was a retrospective chart review of all Canadian Forces members who died during the past quarter century (January 1, 1983, to December 31, 2007) and included autopsy reports, death certificates, coroner reports, hospital records, military reports, and other miscellaneous sources. Underlying cause of death and modifiable behaviors potentially contributing to death were determined.


A total of 1889 individuals died during the study period, and a cause of death was identified for 1710 cases (91%). Traumatic injuries caused 57% of deaths, and medical disease was responsible for 43%. The four leading specific causes of death were motor-vehicle crashes (384 deaths, 22%); neoplasms (374 deaths, 22%); suicide (289 deaths, 17%); and cardiovascular disease (285 deaths, 17%). Combat deaths accounted for less than 5% of all deaths (70 deaths). Approximately 35% of all deaths were attributable to potentially modifiable behaviors, which included suicide (219 non–alcohol-related deaths, 13%); smoking (159 deaths, 9%); and alcohol use (186 deaths, 11%).


Public attention focuses on combat fatalities, yet most military members die from other causes. Avoiding future deaths requires targeting suicide, smoking, and alcohol consumption, in addition to trauma care for combat injuries.