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U of M study details military’s ‘culture of binge and underage drinking’

Binge drinking is so common in America’s armed forces that startling numbers of those who serve on military bases report for work drunk, drive drunk and drink illegally while they are underage, according to a study released today by the University of Minnesota and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study clearly shows that binge drinking in the military “is dangerous to both the drinkers and to those around them,” said Mandy Stahre, a University of Minnesota doctoral candidate in epidemiology and primary author of the study.

The research also reveals an urgent need for more effective strategies to curb binge drinking and underage drinking, Stahre said.

A culture of drinking and the associated problems have long been major worries for both the active-duty military and veterans. It has been well established that heavy drinking can impair military readiness and safety, the study’s authors noted, “particularly given the equipment and dangerous environments commonly encountered by active duty military personnel.”

This study adds to knowledge about the problem by quantifying the amount of heavy drinking taking place on or near U.S. military bases. The researchers analyzed data from 16,037 active-duty military personnel who participated in a 2005 Department of Defense Survey of Health-Related Behaviors Among Military Personnel. The new findings are to be published in the March 2009 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Survey covers home, overseas military bases
The survey was conducted across all branches of the military on bases in the United States as well as overseas, Stahre said. It defined binge drinking as consuming four or more drinks on one occasion for a woman or five or more drinks on one occasion for a man.

Forty-three percent of the responders reported having binged during the 30 days before the survey. From that information, the researchers estimated that there had been a whopping 30 million episodes of binge drinking a year – roughly 30 episodes per person. Five million of the episodes were attributed to people who were under 21 years old at the time.

The study is a lesson in the day-to-day problems that accompany excessive drinking. Compared with their counterparts who drink moderately or not at all, binge drinkers were six times more likely to report job performance problems.

Alarming findings in the study included these details: About 7 percent of the binge drinkers had reported for work drunk and/or had consumed alcohol on the job and during work breaks. More than 11 percent had shown up late for work or left early because of drinking. Nearly 9 percent had been in fights.

And a frightening 25 percent had driven while drunk.

If anything, the true dimensions of the problem are even larger, the researchers noted, because such behavior usually is underreported in surveys.

The study relates indirectly to Minnesotans in the Armed Forces because there are no major military bases in the state, and members of the reserves and National Guard were not surveyed.

But the problem the study measured has been a major concern in Minnesota as more and more soldiers and Marines return home from stressful and dangerous deployments.

No one is supposed to have access to alcohol and drugs while serving in combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But those who are deployed spend weeks and even months at military bases in other states before and after their tours overseas. And Minnesota, like other states, has seen cases of returnees who drink heavily to relieve the stressful aftermath of their dangerous missions.

The Minnesota National Guard’s acclaimed Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program brings combat veterans together 30, 60 and 90 days after they come home for sessions on a range of problems, including substance abuse.

“The National Guard realized that people coming back from combat were having substance abuse issues,” said Sgt. 1st Class Christine Dawson, the Minnesota Guard’s substance abuse prevention coordinator. “They were going back to their civilian positions, and unless they got into trouble with the Guard on their one weekend a month duty, we really didn’t know what was happening to them.”

Minnesota National Guard program targets substance abuse
Now, in the sessions held 60 days after their return, the soldiers and their families are encouraged and educated to recognize and deal with substance abuse. Dawson said she offers treatment and a range of resources they can tap.

But some returnees resist offers of help because denial is consistent with the nature of a drinking problem, said Dr. Gihyun Yoon, who treats veterans as a staff addiction psychiatrist at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

“In a lot of cases, they don’t have any motivation … they don’t want to stop,” Yoon said.

Typically, they relish the taste of beer, the social life in bars, the ritual of tipping a glass for the opening kickoff of a game and the whole culture surrounding drinking, Yoon said. And many don’t realize they are using alcohol to medicate their stress and related depression or other emotional and mental problems.

With further education and motivational nudges, they can be steered to treatment that could involve group therapy in AA-like settings, individual counseling and sometimes medication, he said.

“In some cases, you have to educate not just the patient, but the people around the patient – family, friends and co-workers,” Yoon said.

Stahre, the chief author of the latest study, agrees that the new attention given to treating drinking problems in the military is “a step in a good direction.”  

Stronger pro-active measures urged
But she advocates stronger pro-active measures to curb the culture of drinking before its problems reach crisis proportions.

For starters, she said, the study shows that minimum-drinking-age laws are not being enforced near military bases, and they definitely should be.

Another strategy could be to increase excise taxes on alcohol. “Research shows that as price increases, drinking decreases,” she said.

Yet another would be to limit the locations of bars and liquor stores near military bases.

Finally, she said, screening for problem drinking should be a standard routine in military medical physicals and other health care treatments.

Of course, binge drinking is a major public health problem for the general population as well as for the military. By addressing its own needs forcefully, the military could help curb the larger problem as well, said Dr. Robert Brewer, the leader of the CDC’s Alcohol Program and a co-author of the study.

“The military may be in a unique position to help reduce this problem in the general population, particularly given that nearly 13 percent of U.S. adults report current or past military service,” Brewer said in a statement.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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