For Many Veterans, Substance Abuse Begins Overseas

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

We were all saddened to read about Robert Bales, the U.S. sergeant who allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians, including nine children, just last week. Although we still don’t know all the facts surrounding the tragedy, a senior government official reported that Bales had been drinking alcohol before he left the army base, walked to two nearby villages, and opened fire. But we can’t blame alcohol for the actions of a disturbed individual—or can we?

A reader of the “At War” blog argued that alcohol wasn’t to blame, saying that “the military rolled out the feeble ‘he’d been drinking’ excuse, as if that would explain why a person goes out and kills 17 civilians.” This reader has a point, but he’s not entirely correct. Yes, alcohol consumption wasn’t the only factor that could have motivated these killings—but in combination with PTSD, physical stress, and emotional issues, it may well have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Alcohol is a disinhibitor; it affects judgment and often triggers/allows for unanticipated actions—especially if the user already has pent-up feelings or issues, which was likely the case with Sergeant Bales. Now, after the fact, Bales reportedly doesn’t even remember his actions on the evening of the killings—which points to the possibility that he was in a blackout the entire time. Regardless, while we can’t say for sure that alcohol pushed Bales over the edge, we also can’t say for sure that it didn’t. And alcohol often has at least some role in erratic behavior.

These days, there isn’t enough attention paid to substance abuse by U.S. military personnel on active duty. Sure, when servicemen started returning from Vietnam as alcoholics and addicts, the issue was brought to the forefront of the public consciousness, and now the U.S. military’s General Order No. 1 forbids the consumption of alcohol in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as the Washington Post recently said, that particular order is “not always followed to the letter”—and there are plenty of ways to smuggle alcohol onto a military base. Just as underage kids who want to drink are constantly finding ways around the legal age, military personnel are constantly finding ways around General Order No. 1.

There’s a misconception that the widespread problem of substance abuse among veterans is something that begins when folks return home from active duty. Yes, veterans often have difficulties readjusting to civilian life, and they often self-medicate with alcohol or drugs—or maybe they were injured and soon become addicted to their prescription painkillers. But in working with veterans, I’ve come to realize that many of them begin abusing substances while they are overseas and on active duty. They smuggle in alcohol or take up the Afghani habit of smoking hashish. They’re given anti-anxiety pills to cope with emotional stressors. They’re given painkillers to deal with injuries. Before they know it, they’ve got a major substance abuse problem to bring home with them.

In the post-Vietnam era, substance abuse by active duty military personnel is far from over. This is an issue that we need to bring back into the public eye so that we can help these brave individuals by teaching healthy coping tools and providing more services like those in Phoenix House’s military programs. We must de-stigmatize treatment for substance abuse and/or mental health issues, both during and after an individual’s military service. It’s a simple formula: the more veterans who feel they can come forward and receive treatment without shame and fear of judgment, the more we will be able to help. Because these folks are risking their lives for the rest of us; they deserve a better fate than a lifelong addiction.

Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D.

Blog editor’s note: Psychologist Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D., is a leading expert in the field of post-traumatic stress and a member of the Phoenix House Military Services Advisory Board. 


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1 Comment

  • Thanks for your balanced analysis and acknowledgment that substance abuse problems often begin during active duty. The fact that this horrible crime seems to have happened while the soldier was drunk makes the offense that much worse for the Afghan civilians, whose religion forbids alcohol and is the reason for the absolute ban on alcohol in theatre and on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. It adds even more insult to irreparable injury, showing a disrespect for the Afghan people that has been the focus of outrage during other recent incidents (Koran burning, desecrations)as well. If the U.S. is to accomplish its mission, our military must better address substance abuse and mental health issues caused by the very working conditions they put our servicepeople in. It’s more than an issue of “doing right” by our servicepeople–it’s an issue of compromising our ability to accomplish the very mission that puts us there in the first place. How much worse does it have to get before our military begins to deal more effectively with these issues? Thanks for your call to action.

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