Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for military personnel in their first year home from the war, according to Karen Cutright, a program manager for the Veterans Administration who runs clinics for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. More veterans die from car accidents than from suicide, a different kind of tragedy that has gotten more headlines.
Government officials are worried about the number of young veterans getting into fatal car accidents after they return home from the battlefield. The ones dying most often tend to be young, unmarried males. They tend to come from the infantry ranks, or on gun crews or in seamanship roles.
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are 75% more likely to die in car accidents than the general population. Historically, veterans have had increased fatalities following their service. Vietnam vets were twice as likely to die in crashes than non-veterans, and Gulf War veterans had a 30% to 50% greater risk of dying in crashes.
Why they are risky drivers
Medford said NHTSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs were disturbed to discover that a lot of the deaths were due to some risky behavior by the driver – speeding, alcohol, not wearing seat belts, or not wearing motorcycle helmets.
"The bottom line is, these men and women are taught to drive in Iraq and Afghanistan like madmen," said Chuck DeWeese, assistant commissioner of the New York State Governor's Traffic Safety Committee in Albany, N.Y.
While at war, soldiers are trained to look for anything that could be a bomb laying at the side of the road. They could be hidden in animal carcasses or garbage bags. Merging cars could be filled with bombs ready to blow up a tank.
A 2009 Army study showed that while deployed, 50% of soldiers said they were anxious when other cars approached quickly, 23% had driven through stop signs, and 20% were anxious during normal driving.
"When they come back, driving is hard," said DeWeese. "They think they're invincible. They've gone through combat, they think they can live through anything."
Aggressive driving in young soldiers is just one cause of dangerous driving among veterans, Cutright said. Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries could also result in erratic driving, as can medication and self-medicating (using alcohol and illegal drugs) to cope with symptoms. And there is no check to see if the vets should be driving their own car when they get back. Their license is, of course, still valid.