Army Tries Anonymous Alcohol Program, But Will Anybody Show Up?

By Ariel Nagi 07/15/11

The new confidential treatment program sounds great, but suffers from a high dropout rate.

army drink.jpg
A grand, debilitating tradition.
Photo via thinkstockphotos

All drivers face serious consequences after being arrested for a DUI. But for soldiers, the risks include possible loss of rank or discharge, even if a soldier is simply flagged by a commanding officer for problem drinking. U.S. Army statistics show that nearly 20% of Army personnel report problem drinking, and recent studies show that binge drinking in the military continues to rise. A post-deployment health survey of some 103,000 redeploying soldiers showed that nearly 14,600 of them said they thought they might be drinking too much. "If I had to say a specific incident where we have to contact the military, a lot of those times [it] is for DUIs, for drinking and driving," a Washington State Trooper Guy Gill told
NPR. "If we can stop one of those guys from this weekend going out and getting in their car drunk and getting into a collision and killing himself or his buddy, we're doing good."

So, a confidential testing program for alcohol abuse among the ranks would seem like a no brainer, right? And in fact, the Army's Confidential Alcohol Treatment Education Pilot (CATEP), which started in 2009 at three different bases, has now expanded to six. It is designed to get soldiers into treatment anonymously, and offers weekly meetings and off-duty counselings. Soldiers can even attend in civilian clothing, allowing them to keep their rank private. But how effective is an anonymous, completely voluntary program that doesn’t engage in any formal follow-up? According to Dr. Jolee Darnell, head of the Army Substance Abuse Program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, 41 participants dropped out during the first 18 months of the program. NPR says that the program's extended off-duty hours “have strained counseling resources at the base, and critics are concerned about the lack of accountability and follow-up in a confidential program where command isn't involved.” In addition, the program is limited to soldiers who feel they might have an alcohol abuse problem, and have not been previously cited for an alcohol-related incident. Still, Darnell is reluctant to call the program a failure. But Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said that the “unconventional nature of the program has also hindered Army-wide implementation. I don't want to institute a program where somebody comes in and says, 'I'm having a problem with alcohol,' and I look at him and say, 'Come back in five weeks, that's the first available appointment I have,'" he told NPR.

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