The peacetime Army is a healthy alternative to civilian life, report military researchers who found that soldiers in 1986 died at half the rate of their civilian counterparts.

But one professor said choosing a year of peace for such a study may obscure the realities of serving a nation that goes to war about once a decade.

Army researchers compared death rates among all 781,000 soldiers to civilian counterparts of the same age, race and sex in 1986. The study published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association did not give death rates. However, the lead researcher said in a telephone interview that soldiers overall died at a rate of 109 per 100,000, while comparable civilians died at a rate of 215 per 100,000. Part of the reason may be the screening that requires a volunteer to pass a physical exam, said principal author Joseph M. Rothberg, a mathematician in military psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

The greatest disparity was for homicides, almost one-sixth as common for soldiers.

The most striking difference was among black men. Those in the Army died in homicides at a rate almost one-12th that in the population at large. The homicide rate among black soldiers was 9 per 100,000, compared with 100 per 100,000 for black civilians in the same age group, Rothberg said.