Substance Abuse Among Soldiers Being Ignored

In a memo to Army commanders, the Army’s vice chief of staff General Peter Chiarelli said that instances of substance abuse among hundreds of soldiers are being ignored, possibly because commanders don’t want to lose any more troops. But identifying and treating substance abuse among soldiers will help improve the Army’s mental health care and curb suicides, which jumped to a record 142 confirmed or suspected cases in 2008.

Chiarelli said that hundreds of soldiers involved in “substance abuse-related misconduct (including multiple positive urinalyses” were not processed for possible discharge or referred to the Army Substance Abuse Program for help. He also said he’s worried that commanders feel a requirement to keep their numbers up and are thus letting drug abusers slide.

“I am asking you to ensure that soldiers are provided the help they need when they need it…and that regulatory requirements regarding the referral and initiation of separation processing of substance abusers are enforced,” he wrote in the memo.

Brig Gen. Colleen McGuire, head of the Army’s Suicide Prevention Task Force, said that at one installation where about 1,000 soldiers tested positive for substance abuse through urinalysis, 373 had failed the same drug test in the past, in some cases up to seven times. She said that other installations reported similar numbers.

USA TODAY reported a 25% increase in five years among soldiers treated for substance abuse, but the military needs a greater understanding of substance abuse, says Terri Tanielian, co-author of a RAND Corp. study into war-related mental health and brain injury cases. “I just don’t think we know enough,” she says.

In January, more soldiers committed suicide than died in combat. Numbers seem to be declining since March, but the problem still exists. Army leaders have launched several efforts to curb the rising number of suicides, including suicide-awareness training for soldiers and the suicide prevention task force. Chiarelli oversees the efforts and is briefed each month on every new suicide.

Source: USA Today, Greg Zoroya, Army Blasted for Letting Drug Abusers Slide, May 21, 2009