Some Reports Say Army's Substance Abuse Programs are Failing Our Soldiers

According to USA Today, 20,000 U.S. soldiers suffer from some form of drug or alcohol-related problem each year.  The Army’s substance abuse program is where they are sent for screening.  Based on the current condition of our soldier’s substance abuse treatment options and results, the former chief of clinical services for the Army’s program is calling for needed change.

Management Problems

A USA Today online article reported recent findings on the Army substance-abuse clinics and the soldiers in need of treatment who are turned away.  The USA Today investigation found the Army program to be so lacking that thousands of soldier in need of treatment for substance abuse are turned away.  The poor care of other soldiers is linked to their suicide.

In 2010, the Army transferred its outpatient substance-abuse treatment to non-medical leadership, leading to substandard care.  The change led to the loss of veteran personnel, and the hiring of unqualified substance-abuse clinic directors and counselors.  USA Today acquired the information from records and senior Army clinical staff.

According to Wanda Kuehr, former program director of clinical services, the goal to give to treatment to soldiers is viewed as “inconsequential” by superiors.  She further notes that the Army cannot continue to “keep pushing things under the rug.”

At the same time, the Army denies any decline in its substance-abuse treatment efforts.

Harsh Realities

Following 14 years of war, thousands of our soldiers are left trying to cope with the physical, mental and spiritual ravages of war. Suffering from chronic pain stemming from injuries or wounds, from traumatic brain injury, from family disunity, and from PTSD, many seek escape in alcohol or pain medication abuse. 

An Army survey found that 104,000 soldiers reported serious drinking problems over the past year.  That translates to one in eight soldiers.

Army estimates reported by USA Today include 90 soldiers committing suicide since 2010, despite having received substance-abuse treatment within three months prior.  Thirty-one suicides followed soldiers receiving sub-standard care, based on clinical staff tabulations.

Based on emails, reports, program personnel interviews, and pages of Army files numbering in the hundreds, the following findings came to light:

<!     ØOf the Army’s 54 substance-abuse clinics across the globe, half of them fall below drug and alcohol-abuse treatment standards. 

<!     ØAn Army assessment shows only a handful of their substance-abuse treatment clinics worldwide to be in full-compliance.

<!     ØBased on documented substance-abuse clinic performance evaluations by senior staffers, up to half of the 7,000 U.S. soldiers screened for potential alcohol or drug problems--and turned away--should have been treated.

<!     ØCounseling positions declined 38% over the past six years, leading to care waiting-lists at some clinics.

<!     ØArmy substance-abuse specialists cite a lack of focus on treatment mission, low staff motivation/morale, and a “poor continuity of care” in PowerPoint presentations in an effort to alert leaders to existing problems.

What the Future Holds

According to USA Today, the Army defends its treatment standards since the 2010 move of its substance abuse program from the Surgeon General’s Office to Installation Management Command.

Yet, 27 of the Armys’54 clinics rated below professionally accepted care standards based on an August, 2014 internal rating.  Twenty-two clinics received a borderline rating.  Five met accepted standards.

Clinics cited as problematic include the Washington D.C. area Fort Meyer clinic, and clinics at Alaska and South Korea bases.  The South Korea Yongsan Garrison clinic inspection report of January, 2015, cites dismal counseling services, a waiting list of soldiers seeking help, and a number of soldiers turned-away despite clear signs of drug or alcohol abuse.

It seems our soldiers are the frontline casualties of our lack of effective and workable substance abuse treatment.  They are the frontline casualties of our lack of understanding of the human mind and the true nature of a human being.

Ultimately, they are the frontline casualties of our woeful ignorance of how to fix the damage wrought by violence, war and inhumanity.

Perhaps it warrants a hard look at what we ask of our soldiers, how we break them—and how we fail them.