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Alcohol abuse by GIs soars since ’03

The rate of Army soldiers enrolled in treatment programs for alcohol dependency or abuse has nearly doubled since 2003 — a sign of the growing stress of repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Army statistics and interviews.

Soldiers diagnosed by Army substance abuse counselors with alcoholism or alcohol abuse, such as binge drinking, increased from 6.1 per 1,000 soldiers in 2003 to an estimated 11.4 as of March 31, according to the data. The latest data cover the first six months of the fiscal year that began in October.

“We’re seeing a lot of alcohol consumption,” Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, told top officers during a briefing on the Army’s growing number of suicides.

In a statement to USA TODAY, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed concern. “I’m sure there are many factors for the rising numbers (of enrollments) … but I can’t believe the stress our people are under after eight years of combat isn’t taking a toll,” he said.

Likewise, Marines who screen positive for drug or alcohol problems increased 12% from 2005 to 2008, according to Marine Corps statistics. In addition, there were 1,060 drunken-driving cases involving Marines during the first seven months of fiscal 2009, which began in October, compared with 1,430 cases in all of fiscal 2008.

In an interview last week, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent said alcohol abuse is an indication of the stress, particularly with the ongoing cycle of combat deployments. “Alcohol can tie into a lot of things, and we’re just keeping a close eye on it,” Kent said.

Mullen and Chiarelli said the U.S. needs to reduce the overall number of deployed troops as planned to ease the strain.

Concerns about alcohol abuse led Chiarelli to issue a memo in May urging commanders to treat and, where necessary under Army rules, punish soldiers who test positive for substance abuse or fail blood-alcohol tests. During a visit to six Army installations this year, Chiarelli said, he found hundreds of cases where soldiers who failed those tests, in some cases more than once, were not treated for the problem or processed for possible discharge, as required by Army regulation.

Enrollments in drug abuse treatment programs have remained largely unchanged in the Army during the war, rising from 3.7 per 1,000 in 2003 to an estimated 4.2 as of May.

Chiarelli said top staff officers might not properly deal with the problem because of a need to “keep their numbers up” for combat deployments.

He said identifying and treating substance and alcohol abuse will help improve the Army’s mental health care and curb suicides, which reached a record 142 cases in 2008. There have been 82 confirmed or suspected suicides this year among active-duty, compared with 51 for the same period in 2008.

source: USA Today

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