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Stressed Diggers turning to alcohol on return from front line

ALCOHOL has become the treatment of choice for an unfortunate number of Australian troops left traumatised by their service in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Taxpayers are now funding rehabilitation and sometimes compensation for their addiction, not to mention attempts to break it, as troops return from mostly dry operations to deal with their problems at home.

Data obtained and analysed by The Australian shows that out of the East Timor conflict alone, some 263 personnel have had claims for alcoholism accepted by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. A further 13 approved claims relate to drug use, while two involve pathological gambling additions.

Out of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts the DVA has so far acknowledged 58 cases where alcoholism was directly attributable to the serviceman or woman’s time on deployment. Another person has been compensated for a smoking addiction.

In all cases, the alcoholism coincided with the development of a mental illness that was also deemed to have been caused by frontline service. One in three troops diagnosed with a mental illness after serving in East Timor also had an alcohol problem.

The Rudd government last year committed $80 million over four years to improve mental health services and screening in Defence, after a review found that while the strategy and intent were often world-class, delivery was patchy.

Defence chiefs have also grappled with the perception that some sections of the force have a “boozy” culture, and for that reason impose strict guidelines on drinking while on overseas operations.

In East Timor, only a commander can approve the consumption of alcohol in a forward operating base and how much each member can drink; only in an approved place, provided no member drinks alcohol within eight hours of beginning duty, driving a vehicle or handling a weapon.

In the Middle East, alcohol is more often banned, and even when drinking is approved by a commander the member must not consume more than two standard drinks in 24 hours, and never in public. Some serving personnel have questioned whether the alcohol restrictions abroad might add to the stress and mental health issues.

When the troops return home, the rules are more relaxed, even if official Defence policy states that “the consumption of alcohol is not an essential feature of social practice in the services, nor is that attitude to be encouraged or prompted in any way”.

Within six months of their return, all personnel undergo an alcohol-use disorder identification test, as part of the mental health screen, while the government also runs programs to warn veterans about the health effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

In 2008 it was estimated 1.8 per cent of returned personnel were drinking in the high-risk range, but for troops who had served in East Timor the figure jumped to 3 per cent, a finding reflected in the higher number of approved compensation claims.

Defence has no data on the number of serving troops with an alcohol problem, but has improved preventive health and treatment options.

source: The Australian

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