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By Colin Gilbert
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse have always been rampant in the American military. Heavy drinking is commonly said to be central to the soldier’s lifestyle, with the depressive drug serving double duty for its ability to both foster camaraderie and soothe mental pain. However, alcohol abuse and alcoholism are becoming more and more problematic among the enlisted, even by military standards.
Binge drinking (consuming at least five alcoholic beverages in a drinking session, at least once a week) is widespread, especially in the Army and Marine Corps. A 2007 Pentagon report stated that the rate of binge drinking in the Army increased by 30 percent from 2002 to 2005. The episodes frequently result in disorderly conduct, reduced productivity, illness, and addiction. Also, alcohol abuse is usually associated with the disconcerting rise in mental illness among soldiers, which includes a skyrocketing suicide rate.
New data from the United States Army shows that the percentage of active-duty soldiers seeking treatment for alcohol dependency has nearly doubled since 2003. Six years ago, 6 out of every 1,000 soldiers looked for help in dealing with their alcohol problems. New estimates (as of March 31, 2009), put the number at 11 per 1,000. In the years prior to 2003, the statistic remained relatively stable, indicating that the recent spike is unusual.
Many attribute the current rise in alcohol abuse to the drawn-out nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The troops who have been repeatedly sent back to the areas are thought to be running low on mental endurance and therefore are turning to alcohol as an escape. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has even gone on record about the increasing number of soldiers seeking treatment, saying, “I’m sure there are many factors for the rising numbers … but I can’t believe the stress our people are under after eight years of combat isn’t taking a toll.”
The Army is not the only military branch seeing a problematic rise in alcohol-related issues. The Marine Corps has reported that the number of their soldiers who have tested positive for drug or alcohol problems grew 12 percent between 2005 and 2008. Also, there were almost as many drunken-driving offences filed against Marines in the first half of 2009 as there were in all of 2008.
The Army’s vice chief of staff, General Peter Chiarelli, attributes the alarming trends in part to a lack of proper discipline. Chiarelli visited six Army installations in 2009 and discovered hundreds of cases where soldiers had failed blood-alcohol tests but were not treated or processed for possible discharge, which is the requirement. He said this could be due to commanders trying to maintain sufficient personnel for the continuous deployments into war zones. He warned that this needs to stop and emphasized the importance of treatment for substance abuse problems.
Alcohol’s easy availability and social acceptability in the military make it an ever-present temptation. Various campaigns to curb alcohol abuse within the armed forces have been unsuccessful overall, despite their success in diminishing other kinds of substance abuse.