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During my military service, I have seen many fellows from my unit suffering from the abuse of pain killers and alcohol. To sustain the extreme physical training and drills, many soldiers consume various medicines, painkillers, drugs, and alcohol. Even I also tried to hide the physical pain due to hazardous military training by overconsumption of alcohol and painkillers. Initially, it helped me to control my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while in the field.
However, as the pain started to increase, I decided to consult the Troop Medical Center (TMC) specialist and he prescribed me Xanax. Soon, I realized that the consumption of painkillers was actually lowering my pain and trauma. Therefore, I began to take more and more pills along with the regular consumption of alcohol. The TMC was regularly providing me the pills without any concerns.
After some time, I started to feel the side effects of overconsumption of painkillers. I was on the verge of becoming addicted to it. Additionally, I found out that I was not the only one in such a situation. Some members of the unit even went to the extent of breaking into lockers in the TMC to get the pills. Other cadets told me that the same things happened during the Vietnam War when many US soldiers were abused by substances, drugs, and alcohol.
After hearing many stories and incidents about the abuse of drugs and alcohol in the military, my curiosity and eagerness further increased and encouraged me to conduct a detailed research about the issue.
Abusing drugs and alcohol has been a part of the military culture for many centuries. Soldiers do it for recreation, to ease the stress and trauma of war, or as a symbol of the brotherhood. Nonetheless, various recent studies and reports suggest that substance use and addiction are on the rise among military personnel. Further, explorations show that the members of the armed forces are more prone to drug abuse, binge drinking, and smoking addiction than civilians.
Ritualized drinking opportunities, easy access to alcohol, inconsistent regulation and policies, the lack of recreational activities, attempts to cope with boredom, stress, and loneliness are some of the major reasons for substance abuse in the military culture. Moreover, the growing rate of addiction among military personnel is posing a serious threat to the strength of the military and indirectly to national security (Ames & Cunradi, 2014).
The purpose of this paper is to analyze the issue of growing substance abuse in military culture, its causes, and consequences. Also, the research will highlight some of the preventive measures and possible solutions to the issue.
According to the Pentagon data for the Defense Department and Institute of Medical Center, though the rates of illicit substance abuse are low in the military, the rate of prescribed medication misuse is growing significantly for the last few years. The level of prescribed drug abuse has increased to 11% in 2008 from merely 2% in 2002 (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2013). The Pentagon data claimed that the military management is trying to lower the volume of painkillers and narcotics prescribed to troops as the prevalence of substance abuse has grown dramatically in the US army.
In 2009, military doctors prescribed more than 3.8 million painkiller pills for pain relief to the troop members. This rate is almost four times higher than that in 2001 (Zoroya, 2013). Military analysts and officials have suggested that the high level of substance abuse is directly affecting the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report underlined that one in four soldiers in the US military admitted substance abuse through prescribed painkillers and drugs (Zoroya, 2013).
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The abuse of prescribed drugs and alcohol consumption is higher among military personnel than civilians. Almost 47% of active military duty service members confirmed binge drinking each week. The rate is higher among the servicemen who are exposed to high combat operations. Moreover, 30% of troop members are passive smokers (Ames & Cunradi, 2014).
The most concerning part is significantly higher rates of drug abuse, alcohol consumption, and smoking among young military cadets in each service branch. This degree is about 32% compared with 18% among civilians (Ames & Cunradi, 2014).
Even women serving in the Marine Corps and Navy possess drastically higher rates of substance abuse, i.e., 13%, compared to that of 5.5 % of civilian women (Ames & Cunradi, 2014). The staggering statistics of substance abuse in the military culture are reflecting the seriousness of the issue.
Various research and studies have analyzed the causes and factors, which significantly contribute to the increasing rates of substance abuse and heavy alcohol consumption among military personnel.
Researches have found that the groups of people, who work together, regardless of the size of an organization, establish shared practices and beliefs that can affect alcohol consumption and substance abuse. Military culture can be a major risk factor for binge drinking and drug abuse. The recent interviews with Navy personnel confirmed the drinking routines and established military rituals as well as factors of the working environment that promoted drinking at work and shore leave.
The military members view binge and heavy drinking, i.e., four drinks or more for women and five drinks or more for men per usual drinking occasion, as a part of military cultural tradition. Such cultural norms significantly influence drug abuse and alcohol consumption in the military (Substance Abuse and the Military, 2014).
Easy availability of alcohol is another element that can influence binge and heavy drinking among young and adult military members. Most of the Navy personnel admitted that easy access to alcohol and drinking opportunities is widely available both on the US bases and in foreign ports. Drawing upon Ames and Cunradi (2014), young cadets stated that they had easy access to spirits, substances, and alcohol in bars, hotels, barracks, or near the base.
Besides the Navy, military and air force members also widely reported easy access to various types of expensive alcohol and spirits at workplaces, parties, and leisure places. Mostly, at the foreign ports, bars are located near the disembarkation point. Only a few ports have underage drinking laws, promoting strong drinking culture among young cadets (Ames & Cunradi, 2014).
Abuse of Painkillers
Due to drug addiction, more than 17,000 soldiers were discharged from the US military in 1999. Compared to other branches, the rate of discharged individuals from the services is the highest in the US Navy. Since 1999, drug test failure has increased by 82% in the US Air Force. Studies have shown that the increased painkiller prescriptions and greater availability of various drugs and painkillers are significantly contributing to growing drug abuse among the service members.
TMCs are often seen prescribing painkillers in large amounts in recent years for any combat-related injuries, physical strain owing to multiple deployments and training, or any physiological disorder. Heavy drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, opiates, and other stimulants, are easily available for armed forces members. Soldiers consume heavy doses of pain killers, stimulants, and other drugs, triggering substance abuse and drug addiction among the military personnel to:
- cope with the stress of daily operations, hazardous training, and schedule;
- to tackle boredom and loneliness;
- as a means of increasing alertness during night duties and patrolling (Drug Use in the Military, 2014).
The effects of substance abuse and addiction can be drastic in terms of social, health, security, and economical aspects. The major consequences of substance abuse in military culture can be summarized as follows:
Impact on Health
Drugs, such as heroin and marijuana, have an identical structure as compared to neurotransmitters, which are instinctively generated by the brain. Such similarity allows the substances to deceive the brain's receptors and stimulate nerve cells to transmit abnormal messages (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2012). Acute effects of substance abuse can involve increased sensory perception, drowsiness, euphoria, impaired short-term memory, a lack of balance and coordination, lower attention and judgment, increased appetite, and heart rate.
Further, long-term substance abuse can trigger various mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression, and PTSD. In combination with alcohol, substance abuse can be lethal, amplifying impairment of psychomotor, driving, and cognitive performance, blood pressure, and various diseases (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).
Threat to Security
Drugs can lower the reflexes and judgment ability of the person, which can make a difference between life and death on the battlefield. Drug abuse leads to the greater threat of being separated from the unit or wounded during troop movements or a battle. Moreover, one's wrong judgment may be a risk for the life of other unit members too as in the military, all are directly and indirectly dependent on each other's assistance and role.
In the armed forces, each operation is executed based on the chain of commands and orders. If chaos or a conflict arises as a result of substance abuse, the entire unit may face the threat to their lives. In this way, drug abuse can be dangerous to national and individual security (Drug Use in the Military, 2014).
Alcohol and substance abuse in the armed forces cost the Department of Defense (DOD) almost $ 600 million each year. Additionally, the DOD has to spend more than $132 million for the family care of addicted personnel. The extra cost of medical and health care for substance abuse is collected through the increased taxes to the common civilians. In this regard, the financial burden of substance abuse culture in the military is the biggest concern (Mordey, 2012).
Prevention Policies and Available Treatments
According to the reports of the DOD, the US military has implemented various strict policies to reduce the rates of alcohol consumption, tobacco, and substance abuse. These policies consist of facilities for detection, rehabilitation and treatment, and prevention. All branches of the military are making efforts to discourage and deglamorize the use of alcohol by providing nonalcoholic beverages at the workplace.
The Navy has undertaken the campaign Right Sprit, which aims to remove alcohol from traditional ceremonies of the Navy, providing alternative beverages to alcohol. In addition to alcohol and substance abuse preventive policies, the US military has adopted strategies for smoking prevention, promotion of physical fitness, stress management, and personality development programs (Ames & Cunradi, 2014).
Furthermore, the soldiers with the issue of substance abuse and drug addiction are provided with access to extensive medical treatments, including alcohol and drug therapy. Such medical treatments vary from counseling to medical interventions and detoxification programs to help the individuals to overcome their addiction and related health issues (Substance Abuse and the Military, 2014).
In recent years, the issue of substance abuse and alcohol addiction in the US military has reached an alarming level. The number of soldiers diagnosed with drug addiction and substance abuse is growing day by day. The effects of this phenomenon in the military can prove lethal to both, the person and unit.
To tackle the issue, the US government must adopt some strict and effective policies and management programs. With combined efforts of the government and the military, it is possible to lower the rates of drug addiction and substance abuse in upcoming years in the US armed forces.