22 Feb More Army Soldiers Seeking Treatment for Alcoholism
After driving with a blood-alcohol content more than three times the legal limit and nearly decapitating a 19-year-old woman, Army Sgt. Edison Bayas is serving a 15-year prison sentence for intoxication manslaughter. The decorated career soldier is just one of thousands whose problems with alcohol spun out of control in the midst of two wars.
Sarah Netter of ABCNews.com writes that soldiers are now seeking treatment in record numbers, according to new figures put out by the Army. Nearly 9,200 soldiers sought treatment for alcohol abuse in 2009, a 56 percent increase since the war in Iraq started. Another 11,892 were required to undergo "alcohol education,” a 16-to-20-hour course for soldiers who were disciplined for an alcohol-related incident, but not found to have an actual abuse problem.
"There has always been a healthy work-hard, play-hard ethos to the military," Tom Tarantino, legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, told ABCNews.com. "It can turn very quickly over from being recreational to a problem."
Army officials say 85 percent of the soldiers who seek outpatient substance abuse treatment are there because of alcohol. The Army is now in the midst of a nationwide search for additional counselors in an effort to reduce the wait time for help from days down to hours. There is currently one counselor for every 2,000 soldiers.
"I don’t necessarily think they pay enough attention until it’s too late," said Brian, a three-tour Fort Hood area soldier who is more than two years sober and on temporary disability from the Army with traumatic brain injury and other extensive combat-related medical problems. Brian said it was the realization that his career in the military was over that prompted him to get treatment. "I realized I wasn’t ever going to have a job that was going to enable me to drink like in the military," he said.
Brian signed up for the Army nearly 12 years ago, and said he began drinking heavily after his first deployment to Iraq in 2003. Involved in four separate bomb attacks in that one tour, he “started drinking heavily to mask the pain.”
"Every night it was a minimum of a 12-pack, up to 24," he said. "I stayed at home, would sit and drink until 10 ‘o clock. I’d drink until my body shut down."
By Brian’s third tour in 2005, he was drinking the "near beers" you could buy on base that smelled like the real thing and had a very low alcohol content. He’d also get real beer in care packages from friends and family that didn’t realize he was addicted.
His soldiers would sometimes smell the alcohol on him, but Brian said he’d always have an excuse.
When a potential fourth tour raised questions about his physical ability to lead his command—he’d had multiple shoulder surgeries and had mesh implanted in his abdomen—Brian was put into the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit for injured soldiers. That’s where he realized he had to stop drinking. He called his wife and told her he was going to get treatment. He later found out she’d already been planning to take the children and leave him.
Tarantino, a retired Army captain, said stories like Brian’s drive home the need for more attention to combat-related mental health issues.
"Alcohol abuse is a symptom of the larger problem. It is not the larger problem," he said. "There is a stigma with saying ‘I need help.’ We’re all taught to be strong and macho and we can lift the world on our shoulders."
Bayas’ problems with alcohol went back years, even before he deployed to Iraq.
His attorney, Miguel Villalba, said Bayas, 36, had curbed his drinking after two DUI arrests in the 1990s, while he was in the Army.
But after pulling his best friend’s body out of an exploded tank on his first tour in Iraq in 2004 and going through a divorce after he got home, he started drinking again. And, his lawyers argued, it was no secret he had a problem. Looking at his 18-year military record, "his alcohol issue was never really addressed."
"That he had a drinking problem was known to the world," Villalba said. "And this was happening at a time when he was being given all kinds of commendations."
The drunk-driving accident that killed the 19-year-old college student happened just 10 days after Bayas got back from Iraq. He plowed through her car, which was stopped for a red light, going 60 mph without ever slowing down.
When police on scene asked him where he was headed, Villalba said, Bayas responded, "I was on my way to get my men. I was in Iraq. I was on my way to get my men."
His lawyer said Bayas was not diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder until after his arrest. He pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge.
"He accepted full responsibility for it," Villalba said. "The effects of what has happened have been ravaging" for Bayas and the victim’s family.
The majority of the soldiers seeking counseling for alcohol abuse are 18 to 25 years old.
Army spokesman Hank Minitrez told ABCNews.com that they are trying to do better with reaching the young soldiers earlier.
"For many, shipping out for the Army is the first time away from home for our young soldiers, so they are experimenting with life so to speak," Minitrez wrote in an e-mail. "We are also dealing with younger brains that have not fully developed their executive functions — that little guy on our shoulder that says, ‘Don’t do it!’"
Gary Klozenbucher, clinical director of the Army Substance Abuse Program at Fort Riley in Kansas, told ABCNews.com that most of the soldiers they see in treatment are in the early stages of their addiction.
Some come in scared after being referred by a commander, he said. Others are defiant and insist they have their drinking under control. While many come in with a mix of substance abuse issues, alcohol is "absolutely" the most prevalent.
But Klozenbucher wasn’t convinced that deployments create alcohol problems.
"The majority of the time, the soldiers that we are seeing that have identified as having alcohol and drug problems after a deployment, most of those soldiers have had some history prior to the deployment," he said. "As far as the development of a drug problem, that can play a major role in the progression of the addiction."
He did concur, however, that alcohol abuse can be a catalyst for a host of other problems seen in Fort Riley soldiers, including legal, financial and domestic issues.
"Certainly we’re seeing those problems with our soldiers," Klozenbucher said. "There are a strong relationships with drug and alcohol problems."
Experts—both current Army employees and veterans—ay the difference between today’s soldiers and previous generations is that alcohol is viewed as more of a problem rather than a bonding experience.
"Back when I was in the Army, back in the 1970s and ’80s, we assumed drinking was mandatory," joked Larry Scott, an Army veteran and founder of vawatchdog.org, which keeps tabs on programs and news about the Army and Veterans Affairs. "Really don’t recall too many people who didn’t drink."
Scott even remembered a commander in Korea once pleading with his soldiers to try and keep it to two on-duty drinks at lunch.
"Drinking was as big a problem then as it is now. It just wasn’t as highlighted," he said. "I would say they’re moving in the right direction."
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