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Army STARRS Historical Administrative Data Study (HADS): Looking at the Past

The Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers (Army STARRS) is an unprecedented research study focusing on factors that affect a soldier’s risk of suicide. In order to get a complete picture of Army life, the study’s five main components look at both new and existing data. The New Soldier Study and All Army Study collect survey data directly from soldier volunteers while the Historical Administrative Data Study (HADS) uses data already on file with the Army and the Department of Defense (DoD).

The Army and the DoD routinely gather and store information about soldiers during their Army service. HADS uses Army and DoD administrative records (medical, legal, personnel, etc.) to look for predictors of suicide in data on soldiers’ characteristics, experiences, and exposures. Through a data use agreement, Army STARRS investigators received de-identified administrative information on all Regular Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard soldiers who served on active duty at any point from 2004 to 2009. These administrative data were pulled from a number of different sources and have not been linked outside the Army – until now.

Challenges

Every research study faces challenges and has opportunities to develop new methods. This is also true with Army STARRS. Listed below are some of the more interesting aspects of launching HADS.

More than a Billion

The Army and the study team have identified ~40 databases with information that may relate to suicide risk among soldiers. Together, these data sources include more than 1 billion records on more than 1.6 million active duty soldiers who served at any point between 2004 and 2009. These records provide a wide array of information including military career milestones, occupational and environmental exposures, deployment history, medical problems, and legal infractions. All data, including periodic updates, are stored in a computer system known as the Army STARRS data enclave. The enclave is housed securely and managed by Army STARRS investigators at the University of Michigan.

Confidentiality

HADS does not use data that could identify a soldier. For example, the data do not include names, Social Security Numbers, addresses, etc. When the Army transfers data to the Army STARRS data enclave, one of the most important steps is removing all information that could identify an individual soldier. The first step taken by the Army STARRS team is confirming that the data they received does not contain identifying information.

Putting it all Together

Assembling and linking these databases is complicated. It takes a great deal of attention to detail, coordination among different organizations, and time. There are many complex procedures and more than a dozen steps involved in finding, adding, and documenting each data source. The process includes coordinating with the data holder, securing a table of contents for the data, selecting variables, getting data samples, performing quality checks, and removing identifying information.

Teamwork

This enormous effort requires the combined resources of the Army STARRS research team, the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army, the U.S. Army Public Health Command, the Army’s Chief Information Officer G-6, the Army Analytics Group, and many others.

Findings from the Historical Administrative Data Study will be combined with data from the All Army Study, the New Soldier Study, the Pre/Post Deployment Study, and the Soldier Health Outcomes Study to help researchers find those factors that help protect soldiers’ emotional well-being and those factors that put their well-being at risk.