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Alcohol abuse in military: Marines launch policy to discourage war-weary troops from turning to bottle

Anna MulrineThe Christian Science Monitor

Responding to recent internal reports that, after a decade of war, a growing number of troops consider themselves heavy drinkers, the Marine Corps has announced a new get-tough policy: Personnel who tally a blood alcohol content of .01 or more while on duty will be sent straight to counseling.

A level of .08 is considered legally drunk in most states.

The new policy – in which all Marines will be tested randomly twice a year – was announced as 2012 drew to a close and in the wake of startling recent statistics about the rise in binge drinking among troops since 2001.

In 1998, for example, 35 percent of troops in a Defense Department-sponsored survey considered themselves binge drinkers.

Ten years later, that figure had grown to nearly half. At the same time, nearly one in four troops surveyed called themselves “heavy” drinkers.

And this heavy drinking has consequences, says Col. Timothy Foster, chief of staff of Marine and Family Programs at the US Marine Corps Division Headquarters, in an interview this week.

“If you look at the number of behavioral health issues – whether it’s suicide, sexual assault, or spousal abuse – all of those have one factor in common, and that is alcohol,” he says. “If we put our efforts towards reducing alcohol abuse and misuse in the Corps, these other things will not be totally eliminated, but it will certainly have an effect on those.”

The figure of .01 is relatively low, Foster acknowledges, and could result from less than one drink, or a drink hours earlier, depending on body size. The point, he says, is whether there is a positive result or not.

If it is, there may be a problem, since Marines will be tested after reporting for duty.

“Which means, if they’ve been consuming alcohol and they still have some on their breath, then there may be a problem,” he says. “We’re not saying there is, but we want to evaluate with our experts to see if counseling or treatment is required.”

On the other hand, “If a Marine blew a .01 the first time and has no history of ‘This Marine is always drunk or drinking,’ than it may just be sitting down with a counselor,” Foster adds.

Commanders have the option of taking disciplinary action, but the new program was conceived to be a bit more therapeutic in nature.

The counselors will decide whether the Marines referred to them “have an alcohol problem,” says Foster. “The whole idea is to get ahead of that before it manifests into a serious problem for the individual, for the individual’s family, or for the unit.”

In a pilot program between May and October, the Marines conducted a series of tests on three units and collected 797 samples of various service members.

Of those, 99.99 tested negative for alcohol. Foster says he doesn’t expect these figures to be the norm, however.

The units who took part in the pilot program were specially selected for their jobs, many of which involved security forces.

“Now that it expands out to the rest of the Marine Corps,” he adds, “We’ll likely see an increase in positive results.”

And that in turn will help get more Marines into treatment, Foster says. “Certainly the numbers [of troops who are self-reported heavy drinkers] are shocking enough to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get after this.’ ”