Some members of the U.S. military, like their civilian counterparts, abuse alcohol and drugs. That's been known for years. The issue, according to a new report from the Institute of Medicine, is that the abuse is growing and the Pentagon has been slow to adopt useful programs to screen, prevent and treat those problems.
Alcohol and drug abuse is relatively widespread among men and women in uniform. That's not surprising given the stress of military service. About 20 percent of active-duty military personnel reported heavy drinking in 2008, the latest year for which data is available. Reports of binge drinking increased to 47 percent in 2008 from 35 percent a decade earlier.
The report indicates that the rates of illicit and prescription drug abuse remain fairly low, but are noteworthy. The rate of medication abuse -- particularly of sometimes addictive opioid painkillers -- rose from 2 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2008. That rate of increase, officials say, is faster in the military than among civilians.
The report added that abuse of prescription drugs among active duty personnel is probably more common than the use of illegal drugs like marijuana and cocaine. Such information about substance abuse within the military is useful, but only if it is accompanied by plausible remedies to the problem.
The panel that crafted the report provided such direction. It is sound advice.
The panel says the military first must takes steps to make substance-abuse services more widely available and reduce the stigma that inhibits those who want help, but fear seeking doing so will weaken them in the eyes of their comrades or deleteriously affect their career. The Pentagon has taken steps to remove those obstacles, including toughening rules about the confidentiality of those who seek treatment, but still more can be done.
The members of the study panel also suggest that the Pentagon improve testing regimens, make abuse detection and treatment part of primary medical care rather than a specialty, and that the military move away from old treatment models that emphasize residential and inpatient care rather than outpatient treatment. All have proved efficacious in civilian life and should do so within the military.
Improved and expanded screening, prevention and treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse won't come cheap, but are still a wise investment. The Pentagon seems to understand that. It is willing to implement such programs, but doesn't have the funds to do so.
Times are tough, but the United States surely can afford to provide additional funds -- a relative pittance when compared to the vast amounts spent by the Pentagon annually -- to help men and women in uniform who have problems with drug and alcohol. That should be one budget line-item that even the most jaded and partisan members of Congress can support.