What’s In Your Canteen, Soldier?

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Time hospitalized for chronic U.S. military alcohol problems up nearly four times / MSMR

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, the days spent by U.S. troops in hospitals for alcohol-related problems have skyrocketed, according to a new Pentagon study:

The results of this analysis demonstrate the increasing medical burden that excessive alcohol use is placing on the military health system; this is especially noteworthy for service members with chronic alcohol diagnoses. The number of bed days attributable to chronic alcohol abuse diagnoses has almost quadrupled over the surveillance period.

Wow. A four-fold jump in the number of days spent in hospitals because of alcoholism between 2001 and 2010. There are apparently a lot of deeply unhappy drunken troops in the U.S. military these days.

The study, contained in the Pentagon’s Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, doesn’t blame anything for the rise, except to suggest that increased attention to the problem might contribute to its apparent growth. It doesn’t blame the wars, the fears of going off to war, or celebrating one’s return from war, for the Bacchanalia. Instead, it notes that “the proportions of acute incident alcohol diagnoses that were recurrent were relatively higher among Air Force members, senior-enlisted personnel, and those serving in combat occupations.” (Excuse me: Air Force?)

All this should come as little surprise: the Pentagon itself reported back in 2008 that “one in five active-duty personnel meet criteria for heavy alcohol use – the consumption level most likely to result in alcohol-related problems.” One in five among the 1.4 million troops on active duty? That’s 280,000 service personnel getting wasted (an amazing 47% of the 1.4 million said they were “binge drinkers”).

The Pentagon report (starting here on page 9) warns such “sharp increases” in “alcohol-related medical encounters” can:

result in serious consequences that impede the operational effectiveness of the force and may negatively impact family life and career advancement. Abuse and dependence are associated with poor health outcomes (e.g., poisonings, long-term sequelae of chronic abuse), social disruption (e.g., domestic strife), career stunting (e.g., low performance ratings, loss of promotion, attrition from service), misconduct (e.g., fighting, drunk driving), and accidental and intentional injuries.

While the U.S. military bans alcohol in war zones, its prohibition – contained in the infamous General Order No. 1 – in many cases only delays problems until the troops get back home. The Army is boosting the ranks of its substance-abuse counselors by 30% to deal with the increasing boozing in its ranks.