Army tests anonymous treatment for alcohol abuse
TOKYO — For better and sometimes worse, alcohol is a common battle buddy.
Troops use it to celebrate after a long deployment and to self-medicate when the euphoria fades, leaving only stress, emotions and memories.
To combat that abuse, the Army is trying something new: allowing soldiers who have no alcohol-related blemishes on their records to seek treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction with anonymity and without affecting their permanent records.
Under a pilot program in place at three stateside bases, soldiers who qualify can receive counseling without anyone telling their commanders, without any delay to promotions or re-enlistments and without anyone counting their need for help as an automatic step toward a discharge.
"This is a profound change in the whole ASAP program since its inception in 1975," said James Slobodzien, who directs the Army Substance Abuse Program at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, one of the three pilot sites.
The pilot will run six months at each location. After that, the officials will assess whether to expand it Army-wide.
Many soldiers end up in alcohol counseling because they are forced to go. Commanders must refer soldiers if they are involved in an alcohol-related incident such as a fight or an arrest, or if they have problems at work. Those rules still hold, and any soldier getting counseling as a requirement is not eligible for the pilot program, Slobodzien said.
Yet voluntary enrollment in the traditional program also sends automatic notifications to commanders. Participation, whether voluntary or required, puts promotions on hold and restricts a soldier from re-enlisting. The soldier’s record will forever note the enrollment, and after two enrollments in ASAP, he or she can be dismissed from the military, Slobodzien said.
With the pilot program, officially called the Army Confidential Alcohol Treatment and Education Pilot, the Army is testing whether lifting those consequences will encourage more people to seek help.
Most of all, the Army wants to begin helping soldiers before they get into trouble, Army medical officials said.
“We’re not complaining about the regular system,” Slobodzien said. “That’s working, too. But this is the program for those who haven’t had a problem yet.”
Soldiers deemed a threat to themselves, others or their missions are not guaranteed anonymity, said Brig. Gen. Steve Jones, the head of Pacific Regional Medical Command and Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. And soldiers with certain jobs, such as aviators, cannot enroll in the pilot program, he said.
“We had to walk a careful line about giving soldiers an opportunity to do this without risking other soldiers in their units,” said Les McFarling, who directs the entire Army Substance Abuse Program.
The pilot program asks commanders to trust both their soldiers and the counselors to ensure the unit’s safety and mission. At first, commanders were anxious about the idea of not knowing everything about their soldiers’ situations, Jones and others said. But support for the program, so far, has been strong, he added.
The pilot began at Schofield Barracks on July 6, with clinics at Fort Richardson in Alaska and Fort Lewis in Washington following later in the summer. So far, about 60 soldiers and officers have qualified for the pilot at the three areas, though most have been at Schofield, according to Slobodzien and others. That represents about a quarter of all newcomers to the abuse program, whether required or voluntary, in the same time period, according to Jones.
“Those are good numbers,” he said during an interview last week in Tokyo.
One of the reasons for the pilot program, Jones said, came after surveying returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Data showed that alcohol use and incidents were rising, but enrollment in treatment programs remained stagnant.
The Army picked the Hawaii, Alaska and Washington sites because the counseling staffs there were best able to handle an increase in cases.
Even so, their staffs were increased by about 25 percent above normal, according to McFarling. The clinics offer evening and weekend hours to encourage soldiers to seek help during off-duty times, he said.
The staffs created a database to track the caseloads, but that data does not get shared with commanders or recorded on an individual soldier’s military record, officials said.
So far, most of the participants at Schofield have been younger soldiers, ranks E-1 to E-4. Four officers have sought help, Slobodzien said.
Slobodzien said he hopes the program will continue. After working at the clinic at Schofield for 14 years, he’s seen soldiers leave his office after learning their treatment would appear on their military records.
“Studying this in a six-month period is not good enough,” he said. “Trust has to be built with people we’ve treated. So they can go out and tell their friends, ‘Yes, they didn’t tell the commander. Yes, it didn’t affect your promotion. Yes, you can go.’   ”
When to seek helpAlcohol abuse generally means a person’s relationships, work performance and health are suffering as a result of drinking. Alcohol dependence describes a state in which a drinker has built up a tolerance to alcohol and suffers withdrawal symptoms without a drink.
So how do you know if you need help?
"Three to four drinks a night, three or four nights a week? That’s a lot of drinking," said Les McFarling, head of the Army Substance Abuse Program. "Especially if it’s more on the weekends. That’s something you ought to watch."
Think about your actions after you drink, McFarling says. If you get out of control, want to dance with everyone on the dance floor and fight everyone at the bar, he says, "then you’ve got some issues."