Not the least of which is re-adjusting to American road rules. In Iraq, the goal of the morning commute is to reach the destination alive. The more speed the better, and anything not moving out of the way quickly enough gets plowed into the pavement.
Many returning military personnel find it difficult to forget the lessons they've learned on hostile foreign roads. Over there, smart drivers follow the center line to avoid IEDs on the shoulders. Turn signals only give the enemy advance notice of your next move, and stopping at intersections makes you an easy target. When back in the states, those tactics are still effective for negotiating traffic, but aren't appreciated so much by fellow drivers.
A new study by insurer USAA (which serves members of the military and their families) shows that on average, returning troops had 13 percent more at-fault accidents than before they left. U.S. Army personnel showed the largest change at 23 percent, with Marines showing 12.3 percent increase.
Fortunately, USAA says it has no plans to raise rates in response to the study's results. It's also sharing the data with researchers and traffic safety experts in hopes of finding a solution.
Losing control of the vehicle was the most common type of accident and was far more prevalent among young enlisted service members than officers or noncommissioned officers, USAA found after reviewing at-fault auto accidents among active-duty members who saw more than 171,000 deployments.
The "Returning Warriors" study, which covered accidents reported from 2007-2010, also found that enlisted military members were 22% more likely to cause a wreck after returning home from deployment than before they left, compared to a 10% increased risk for noncommissioned officers and a 3.5% increased risk for officers. But once service members had been home for six months - and had time to readjust to the rules of the American road - those accident rates declined.
"Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line when they deploy in service of this country, but they can face new threats to their safety when they come home and get behind the wheel," says retired US Army Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, president of USAA Property and Casualty Insurance Group. "We care deeply about all our returning warriors and we want to do what we can to keep them safe. We hope this study can help shine a light on this challenge and bring people together so we can understand it better and work toward solutions."
As part of that effort, USAA is sharing its findings with military safety commanders in all branches of the military to help them raise awareness of the challenge some service members have transitioning back to civilian driving. "This issue is not very well known in the public eye, and there's no silver-bullet solution. You have to start with awareness," says George Drew, USAA's assistant vice president of Underwriting.
USAA member Brad Hammond knows about these challenges from personal experience. He was stationed in the hotly contested cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Tal Afar where his armored Stryker Brigade came under routine attack. Roadside bombs and vehicle-borne explosives were routine threats. He drove accordingly.
"My driving style and the way we were taught was to be purely 100% aggressive," explains the former Army specialist. Since being inside a vehicle was so dangerous, they tried to "get from point A to point B as quickly as possible with the least amount of our casualties as possible. It was get going, be there yesterday."
Hammond said he disregarded traffic signals, ignored speed limits and didn't stop when he caused accidents, which happened once when he rammed a dump truck out of his way with a 19-ton Stryker Combat Vehicle, causing the dump truck, suspected of being an insurgent blockade runner, to crash onto its side.
He carried that driving style when he returned to Denver, Colo., where he continued to drive aggressively and ignore speed limits. Hammond says he's racked up numerous speeding tickets and scares his wife, Dani, "all the time" with his driving.
With so many troops returning home, stories like Hammond's are not uncommon. So USAA is sharing the study with academics and traffic-safety experts to give them hard data as they look at programs and solutions. USAA also wants to ensure that members are aware of the behind-the-wheel risks for returning service members so they have the information to talk with returning family members.
But the company has no plans to raise auto insurance rates based on the data. Additionally, no information about individual members was released or reviewed as part of the study. "We're highly, highly protective of our USAA member information," Drew says. Raising awareness of the findings, especially among military safety commanders, was the priority, he explained.
"In December, 45,000 troops came home," he adds. "We all need to help our returning warriors as they adjust to driving on US roadways. All the things you do to survive in combat can put you at significant risk on US highways."