Alcohol Abuse on the Rise Among Combat Veterans

By Hugh C. McBride

One upon a time in the U.S. military, knowing how to hold one’s liquor was as much a part of being a “real soldier” as knowing how to handle one’s weapon. Though the days have long passed when heavy drinking was a glamorized aspect of uniformed life, statistics show that an increasing percentage of troops are attempting to relieve the stresses of battle by reaching for the bottle.

In recent decades, all four major branches of the U.S. military – the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps – have undertaken significant efforts to dissuade troops from abusing alcohol and other drugs. Access to alcohol has been minimized on many military installations, with organizations such as the U.S. Army’s Directorate of Morale, Welfare, and Recreation emphasizing leisure options such as organized sports, theater, and cultural programs instead of promoting long nights in smoky bars.

Commanders, noncommissioned officers, and substance abuse professionals distribute alcohol awareness information and warnings to troops on a regular basis, and DUI convictions – which once generated little more than a virtual slap on the camouflage-clad wrist – are now considered career-killers.

Yet an article in the July 8, 2008 edition of The New York Times notes “a growing body of evidence that alcohol abuse is rising among veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of them trying to deaden the repercussions of war and disorientation of home.”

RETURNING TO THE ‘BAD OLD DAYS’?

Lizette Alvarez, who wrote “After the Battle, Fighting the Bottle at Home,” drew a parallel between the burgeoning substance abuse issues facing today’s military and the rampant addictions that threatened the military’s effectiveness during the 1970s:

While the numbers remain relatively small, experts say and studies indicate that the problem is particularly prevalent among those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as it was after Vietnam. Studies indicate that illegal drug use, much less common than heavy drinking in the military, is up slightly, too.

Even within the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, where service members are officially prohibited from drinking or even possessing alcohol, the drug has caused its share of problems. On March 12, 2007, the International Herald Tribune published an article by Paul van Zielbauer revealing that a Freedom of Information Act request had forced the government to disclose that more than 33 percent of troops who were convicted of criminal acts in Afghanistan and Iraq had committed offenses while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Of the 665 convictions that the military reported, von Zielbauer wrote, 240 involved troops who had consumed illicit substances prior to or during the commission of their crime. Seventy-three of these drug- or alcohol-related cases involved assault, rape, armed robbery, or murder, he reported.

“It’s clear that we got a lot of significant alcohol problems that are pervasive across the military,” Thomas Kosten, a psychiatrist who works at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston, Texas, told von Zielbauer.

LEADERSHIP EMPHASIZES SOBRIETY

Reporters and health care professionals aren’t the only ones paying attention to this issue, as an Army spokesman emphasized that alcohol abuse by American troops has not gone unnoticed by military brass.

In an interview that was reported in the July 8 Times article, Lt. Col. George Wright told Lizette Alvarez that his service branch has deployed a three-pronged attack against the misuse of alcohol and other substances.

“The Army takes alcohol and drug abuse very seriously and has tried for decades to deglamorize its use,” Wright told the Times writer. “With the urgency of this war, we continue to tackle the problem with education, prevention, and treatment.”

At least one important statistic supports Wright’s statement that the Army is dedicated to decreasing drinking within the ranks. The New York Times reported that the Army’s substance abuse budget has increased dramatically over the past four years, rising from $38 million in 2004 to $51 million for 2008.

The siren song of alcohol can be especially tempting to troops who are stationed in a country that is renowned throughout the world for its beer – and countering that enticement can demand a consistent and concerted effort. Responding to a spike in drinking and driving arrests among members of the U.S. military communities in Grafenwoehr and Vilseck, Germany, garrison safety specialist Bob McGaffin told Stars and Stripes reporter Seth Robson that Army leaders in Europe have instituted a number of programs and procedures to address the problem.

McGaffin told Robson that overseas safety and substance abuse personnel pay particular attention to troops who are retuning from a combat zone deployment and who may not be emotionally prepared to embrace a safety-first philosophy. “It is a mental condition,” McGaffin said. “Releasing energy after coming back from downrange. The feeling of invincibility that goes with it. [The soldier has] survived 15 months of hell and been shot at and has made it.”

As Robson reported in his July 16, 2007 article, anti-alcohol measures instituted in Germany include safety messages, classes for young soldiers, online and face-to-face risk assessments for travelers, briefings for community newcomers, and statistical reports to help command personnel identify and address areas of concern.

Other units have taken a more punitive approach to emphasize the military’s official stance on alcohol abuse. In January 2007, troops with the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in Korea were ordered to keep their blood alcohol concentration below .10 at all times after military police reported that division soldiers were involved in more than 100 alcohol-related incidents the previous month.

On a somewhat lighter note, the Department of Defense has also funded a multimedia “Don’t be That Guy” campaign that attempts to educate young troops in an entertaining manner. Radio and television spots poke fun at “That Guy” who gets drunk and embarrasses himself in public, and the campaign’s graphic-intensive website features games, videos, and a wide range of other high-tech (and occasionally lowbrow) attempts to spread the word about the virtues of sobriety.

ADVOCATES URGE INCREASED ASSISTANCE

The military’s leadership seems to be satisfied with the programs and policies they have put into place, but critics of the Pentagon’s support of soldiers with substance abuse disorders are adamant that much more can and should be done.

Writing in the blog section of the Veterans For America website, Jason Knobloch expressed his belief that the military remains unprepared for the enormity of the problem. “Numerous studies have shown, as VFA has found over and over again, that heavy drinking and drug use are often attempts to self-medicate untreated psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder,” Knobloch wrote. “The programs to treat these conditions of both the military and the Veterans Administration are understaffed and underfunded.”

The VFA, Knobloch wrote, urges Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake, to expand troops’ abilities to access treatment for alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And in an Aug. 2, 2005, commentary on the Common Dreams website, Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance invoked the less-than-ideal treatment of a previous generation of war veterans when writing of his fears that the United States is not prepared to support those who are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We better be ready to offer compassion and treatment – not just a jail cell – when it comes to helping our brothers and sisters heal from the damages of war,” Newman wrote. “Let’s hope that we support our current troops better than we supported the veterans who fought in Vietnam.”

 

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