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A Missouri senator has proposed a bill that would in some cases keep under wraps the identities of servicemembers who seek help for alcohol or drug abuse.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill proposed the bill following the testimony of Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the U.S. Senate Tuesday. The bill is called the Support for Substance Use Disorders Act.

"Our men and women in uniform deserve the very best health care available," McCaskill said in a press release. "Substance abuse is a medical problem and to think they can’t get the help they need, or worse receive punishment instead of treatment is outrageous."

According to McCaskill’s office, she became aware of the issue after a whistleblower at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., complained about understaffing and mismanagement in the alcohol and drug abuse treatment program there. The base has made great strides in fixing those problems since McCaskill started looking into the matter last fall, said Maria Speiser, a spokesman for the senator’s office.

The main issue that the bill seeks to address is that people should not be discouraged from seeking help when they need help, but at the same time the senator understands that commanders need to know what is going on in their ranks, Speiser said.

The bill would have to spell out under what conditions the commanding officer of a servicemember who seeks help would be notified, Speiser said.

It would also establish a center to implement a plan for treating substance use disorders in the military and to research new treatments.

One military substance abuse counselor said servicemembers’ perception that they can be punished for seeking treatment is a major deterrent that stops them from getting help.

"We do have to notify their CO because they are going to have to support (the person seeking help) as far as any treatment that is needed," said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Mary Morin, an alcohol and drug counselor at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Naples, Italy. "Coming to get services by us is not punishable, it is like any other medical appointment. The commanding officer can not punish them for that."

Morin, who works for the Navy’s Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program, said most of the sailors seen by her program are punished because their problems caused them to violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The Air Force handles the matter by requiring the commanding officer to be notified if an airman who seeks alcohol or drug treatment is at risk of harming him or herself, is a danger to others or is a danger to the Air Force’s mission, Air Force 1st Lt. John Griffin said.

Army regulations also encourage servicemembers to seek help on their own. The regulations state that voluntarily seeking help is preferable and the soldier’s unit commander must become involved in the evaluation process. A copy of those regulations provided by Installation Management Command-Europe did not state whether a soldier could be punished for seeking help.


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