A soldier with a drinking problem faces a dilemma. The Army offers treatment for alcohol abuse, but the patient’s chain of command is notified. For soldiers hoping to make a career in the service, that can be a dealbreaker.
The Army hopes to fix that.
Enter the Confidential Alcohol Treatment and Education Pilot program, which begins next Monday at Madigan Army Medical Center and two other Army installations. It’s the first such program of its kind; when a soldier seeks help for alcohol abuse, his chain of command isn’t notified.
“The military does recognize there are increasing problems with alcohol,” said Jolee Darnell, the clinical director and regional coordinator for the Army Substance Abuse Program at Fort Lewis. “That’s why they’re putting this program in place.”
Meetings with counselors will take place after normal duty hours at the old Madigan complex. Notes in a soldier’s medical file will only be accessible under certain conditions, like with his consent, a court order or if he or she represents an imminent danger to self or others.
More than 10,400 soldiers across the Army were referred to alcohol-abuse treatment through the first nine months of the 2009 fiscal year, according to the Pentagon. The Army treated 12,590 during the 2008 fiscal year.
And of the 475 soldiers at Fort Lewis receiving substance-abuse treatment, 60 percent battle alcohol abuse.
The program will employ four counselors and can treat up to 100 patients at a time. If a greater demand presents itself, Darnell said, it’s possible more counselors will be hired.
A previous alcohol- or drug-related incident (like an arrest or positive urinalysis test) or treatment referral by one’s commander make a soldier ineligible for the program. So does a military specialist in certain high-risk fields, like aviation, transportation or nuclear surety.
Soldiers in the program can re-enlist and remain eligible for promotion.
Most soldiers in the program will likely seek treatment for 60-90 days. It will be offered only to active-duty soldiers at Fort Lewis, and Darnell said her office is already receiving calls from several people interested in the program.
The pilot program lasts six months, and the Army will determine after it finishes if it should continue.
Fort Lewis; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; and Fort Richardson, Alaska, are the first three locations for the program. The three installations were chosen because of staffing levels, varying troop populations (Fort Lewis is the largest with about 35,000) and because they are home to Stryker brigades, which are frequently rotated into Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the program is in demand elsewhere: Colorado’s senators publicly urged the Army last month to include Fort Carson in the program.
Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet made the request in response to a study of violent behavior from soldiers with 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division after they returned from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report, commissioned by the military, said soldiers in the unit seeking substance abuse or mental health treatment faced ridicule and accusations of faking their problems. The report also found that soldiers in the unit seeking substance abuse or mental health treatment face ridicule and accusations from fellow soldiers that they were faking it.
Anonymous help is nothing new to the treatment of substance abuse; Bill Wilson discovered this when he founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. Flyers for AA can be found across military installations, including some in Iraq.
“That might be one part of treatment – to encourage people to seek an AA group,” Darnell said. “AA is really a support group. This is treatment.”