GI drinking problems rise in Hawaii

The Army is reporting an "alarming increase" in drunken driving by soldiers in Hawaii as the military continues to struggle with the consequences of war and a return to "garrison" life.

"Recently, there has been an abundance of (operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant) incidents by members of the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii," Col. Mark Jackson wrote in the Nov. 22 Hawaii Army Weekly base newspaper.

In late July, Jackson noted there was an "ongoing problem" with incidents and crimes revolving around alcohol on garrison installations.

Between July and October, 74 cases of impaired driving were reported, Jackson said. Of those, 23 occurred on Army garrison installations, while 51 were off-post incidents involving soldiers, said Jackson, director of emergency services for the garrison.

Jackson said in October alone, there were 21 reported cases of operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant.

Some of the alcohol-related cases -- involving driving and problems at home -- have ranged from passing out at a gas station to domestic violence and erratic behavior that led to a Schofield soldier being fatally shot by police in Waikiki on Jan. 15 after he rammed squad cars that had boxed in his truck.

In that January incident, Spc. Gregory Gordon, 22, drove the wrong way on a one-way street, and was shot after he disobeyed police orders to stop his truck.

His blood-alcohol level was 0.196 -- 21/2 times the legal limit of 0.08 to drive in Hawaii, the city medical examiners found. Gordon had returned from Afghanistan within a year of his death.

On Oct. 20, a Military Police patrol found an unresponsive soldier slumped over the steering wheel of her sport utility vehicle at the Foote Gate gas station at Schofield Barracks, the Army said.

The vehicle was parked, the Army said, but the engine was still running. The soldier's preliminary breath test registered a 0.152 blood alcohol level, the Army said.

On June 22, a call was received about a domestic disturbance in the Schofield Akolea housing area, the Army said. A staff sergeant and his wife were involved in an argument. She reportedly bit the soldier's wrist, and he threw her to the floor, punched her numerous times, and threw her against a bookshelf, according to the Army's account.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse said although illicit drug use is lower among U.S. military personnel than civilians, heavy alcohol and tobacco use, and especially prescription drug abuse, are much more prevalent and on the rise.

"Those with multiple deployments and combat exposure are at greatest risk of developing substance use problems," the institute said. "They are more apt to engage in new-onset heavy weekly drinking and binge drinking, to suffer alcohol- and other drug-related problems, and to have greater prescribed use of behavioral health medications."

The policy of zero tolerance for drug use among Defense Department personnel is likely one reason illicit drug use has remained at low levels.

The Institute of Medicine reported last year that alcohol and prescribed drug use in the armed forces constituted a "public health crisis."

Military physicians wrote nearly 3.8 million prescriptions for pain medication in 2009, more than quadruple the number of such prescriptions written in 2001.

Tricare, the health care program serving the military, said service members may drink excessively to deal with stress, boredom or loneliness.

The Army did not directly address the extent of the drunken driving problem involving soldiers in Hawaii, but did provide information on steps being taken to try to curb it.

An Army Substance Abuse Program "prevention education team" provides substance abuse prevention training throughout the year, and all soldiers are required to take four hours of the training every year, said Stefanie Gardin, a U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii spokeswoman.

The team's campaign ".08 for the 808 state" (a reference to the drunken driving threshold and Hawaii's area code) is incorporated in education classes and materials to improve alcohol awareness and promote responsible drinking behavior, she said.

All soldiers involved in an alcohol-related incident on or off the installation are required to take "Prime for Life" -- a two day, 12-hour alcohol and drug program conducted monthly.

The Army also has a Soldiers Against Drunk Driving Oahu Chapter spearheaded by volunteer soldiers from the 8th Theater Sustainment Command started in March 2010 that offers free rides to soldiers and family members who have had too much to drink.

As of July, Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores on Army installations in Hawaii stopped selling alcohol  between midnight and 6 a.m.

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