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Violent offending by UK military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan
15 March 2013

Men who have served in the UK Armed Forces are more likely to commit a violent offence during their lifetime than their civilian counterparts, according to new research by King's Centre for Military Health Research at King's College London. 

The study was published in a Lancet special issue on Iraq.

Most strikingly, the study found that the proportion of young servicemen (under 30 years old) with a conviction for violent offending was much higher than among men of a similar age in the general population (20.6% vs 6.7%).

“There has been a lot of media coverage and public debate about violence committed by veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our study, which used official criminal records, found that violent offending was most common among young men from the lower ranks of the Army and was strongly associated with a history of violent offending before joining the military. Serving in a combat role and traumatic experiences on deployment also increased the risk of violent behaviour”, explains Dr Deirdre MacManus from King’s College London, who led the research.

The first large-scale study of its kind, linked data from 13,856 randomly selected serving and ex-serving UK military personnel with national criminal records to assess the impact of deployment (serving in Iraq or Afghanistan), combat exposure, and post-deployment mental health problems on subsequent offending behaviour.

The researchers found that 17% of male service personnel in the study had a criminal record. Whilst overall lifetime offending (all offences from theft to assault) in the military was lower than in the general population, lifetime violent offending (ranging from threats of violence to serious physical assault or worse) was more common among military men (11% vs 8.7%).

Pre-military history of violence, younger age, and lower rank were the strongest risk factors for violent offending. Men who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan with direct combat exposure were 53% more likely to commit a violent offence than men serving in a non-combat role. Witnessing traumatic events on deployment also increased the risk of violent offending.

Alcohol misuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and high levels of self-reported aggressive behaviour on return from deployment were also found to be strong predictors of subsequent violent offending.