Care needed to interpret new U.K. study of vets in British prisons
The new issue of the British Medical Journal includes an article described as myth-busting, because it shows that in the United Kingdom, veterans with combat trauma are no more likely than other people to end up in prison. The piece is called "Inquiry 'busts the myth' that combat trauma is linked to criminal behaviour" and is written by Ingrid Torjesen.But we need to go beyond the headline for several crucial reasons.
The headline differs in important ways from what is reported in the article, because the inquiry chair, John Nutting QC is quoted as saying that “Ex-servicemen are not committing crimes shortly after leaving the plane from Helmand” but that “The reality is that most ex-servicemen resettle into the community without problems but that, for some, issues arise later in life which can lead to offending." In fact, the report reveals that the average veteran who ends up in prison usually does so later in life than the non-veteran.
It is also important that the report includes the information that ex-servicemembers are actually somewhat less likely than other people to be in prison but also that those ex-service personnel who are imprisoned “are more likely than other prisoners to be there for sexual or violent crimes.” The connection between being trained to defend or attack and even to maim or kill and the commission of violent crimes back home seems to need little explanation.
Based on the BMJ article, it appears that many people in the U.K., like many in the U.S., believe that veterans of war are more likely than other citizens to end up in prison. Certainly, there have been many high-profile cases reported in the media of veterans behaving in violent ways. But as of 2007, U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics showed that in 2004, the rate of incarceration in prisons of veterans was actually about half that for people who had not served in the military.  I have not been able to find more recent statistics, so the pattern might have changed, but the 2004 date is important, with most veterans of the current wars returning home since that time.
As an advocate for veterans, I naturally do not wish to report that the rate of commission of crime and imprisonment are higher for combat veterans than they actually are, but whatever the case, it is tremendously important to make sure that we understand any possible connections between combat trauma and crime commission and learn what we can do to help. Given that in the U.S. study, crimes of violence are described as more likely to be committed by combat veterans than by others and that acts by the former that lead to prison sentences happen later in their lives, perhaps part of what needs careful study is exactly what happens to them in the years when they are trying to readjust to civilian culture. In the British study, trouble adjusting to civilian life was cited as one of the primary factors related to veterans’ criminal behavior.
It is rare that militaries anywhere in the world offer assistance with this readjustment, and that is perhaps not surprising, because to do so requires highlighting how vastly different is military culture from civilian culture. In contrast, in some Native American societies, returning warriors are explicitly and ritually helped to make the transition, which is acknowledged to be vast and difficult, whereas in many cultures including dominant U.S. culture, that is not the case.
It is important to understand that this study was done in Britain, whose culture with regard both to the military and to violence is quite different from here, so we cannot assume that this necessarily proves anything about the U.S. Furthermore, Britain has a much stronger social welfare net, and we know that a major factor driving people into criminal behavior is the unavailability of housing, employment, food, and healthcare.
It is also important to understand that whatever percentage of citizens of any nation who have experienced combat trauma end up engaging in criminal behavior, the courts and the whole society need to understand how having been in combat and/or the conditions of their returning home (and in the U.S., we are doing far too little for our veterans in every single realm ) might have led to the commission of their crimes. Some of this consideration appears to be starting to happen to some degree with the establishment of special courts for veterans in this country.
Longtime veterans advocate John Judge posted a comment so rich in information and important context for what I said in the above essay that it is more essential reading than what I wrote. BE SURE to read his co
 Paula J. Caplan. (2011). When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.