It’s no secret that active-duty military service is one of the most – if not the most – stressful career paths, so perhaps it will come as no surprise that U.S. military personnel are also among the heaviest drinkers in the world.
Even though drinking while on deployment is strictly forbidden, drunk servicemen have made national news, like last September when a platoon of Navy SEALs was kicked out of Iraq for drinking on the job and alleged sexual assault, or in May when Sergeant Logan J. Melgar was killed in an alcohol-induced hazing incident. Every year, excessive drinking reportedly costs the Defense Department roughly 320,000 work days and $1.1 billion in productivity and medical treatment, along with being responsible for roughly 34,400 arrests.
The U.S. military has had a close relationship with alcohol since at least World War Two, but recent surveys have revealed a concerning trend towards dangerous levels of alcohol consumption amongst active servicemen and women. As far back as 2009, a Department of Defense survey of 16,000 military service people showed that binge drinking (five or more drinks in one sitting for men, four or more for women) was common among 43% of active-duty military personnel, contributing to almost 30 instances of binge-drinking per person per year in the armed forces. The majority (67%) of binge-drinking instances was reported by those aged 17 to 25, and a quarter of those cases came from underage drinkers.
And the problem is getting worse. Last year, a study of four years of data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that members of the armed forces spend a third of the year drinking; 130 days out of the year, 39 days more than the national average. The data also shows that military personnel have increased their intake every year, drinking on average 38 days a year more in 2017 than in 2013. Compare this to workers in the arts, who reduced their drinking by nine days a year in the same period, and it’s clear that there is a link between the armed forces and alcoholism.
As for why, the stress from combat is a major contributor. Active-duty personnel are five times more likely than the average citizen to suffer from depression and fifteen times more likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Individuals suffering from these conditions look for a way to handle their emotions, but due to social pressure to bury their emotions, many turn inwards and try and deal with the problem themselves by drinking. This silence is only amplified by a fear that revealing their alcohol dependence to a superior might have them disciplined or even discharged from service.
Although reasons for drinking may differ, the effects of alcoholism are always the same. The DoD survey showed that binge drinkers were more likely to drive under the influence, underperform at work and get in trouble with the law.
The good news is that there’s hope for recovery. Initiatives like the Las Vegas Desert Hope Treatment Centre’s “Salute to Recovery” program are aimed specifically at military personnel suffering from alcohol and substance addiction, and many treatment professionals specialize in military-focused therapy and counseling. The military is also encouraging personnel to speak up about their alcohol issues. In March 2019, Army Secretary Mark Esper assured those in active-duty military service suffering from alcohol dependency they can seek help for their addiction without affecting their deployability. On top of that, some are campaigning to curb the problem before it starts by enforcing the legal drinking age or even putting soldiers on a keto diet, which bans beer.
Whether it’s to improve productivity or promote healthy living, the military is eager to turn the tide on active-duty military personnel drinking. Considering the data, they’ve got their work cut out for them, but hopefully with increased awareness and a more open discussion on the dangers of alcoholism, our brave military men and women can find a better way to deal with the traumas of combat.