Army Tests Confidential Alcohol Abuse Program

July 13, 2011

Patricia Murphy

About 20 percent of Army personnel report problem drinking. The number is statistically similar to the civilian population, but a recent study by the Department of Defense finds that binge drinking is increasing among the ranks.

In response, the Army has been testing a new program to reach out to soldiers in need of help by offering a confidential treatment option.

Army research shows that many soldiers are reluctant to seek help because it involves notifying unit command. Binge drinking — defined as five or more drinks in a row — is often intertwined with soldiers' mental health issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The results can be deadly: accidents, suicide and family violence.

The Army's Confidential Alcohol Treatment Education Pilot, or CATEP, is designed to get soldiers into treatment before they have an alcohol-related incident. Since the CATEP pilot program started at three military installations in 2009, it's been expanded to six. There are 38 soldiers enrolled in the program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

The base sits in the middle of State Trooper Guy Gill's patrol area.

"If I had to say a specific incident where we have to contact the military a lot," Gill says, "a lot of those times [it] is for DUIs, for drinking and driving."

Consequences For Problems

Gill is on his way to the base to brief troop members from the Fifth Battalion, Third Field Artillery Regiment on military safety.

He knows this is a tough crowd, so his presentation includes graphic images of car crashes and dead bodies.

"If we can stop one of those guys from this weekend going out and getting in their car drunk and getting into a collision and killing himself or his buddy, we're doing good," Gill says. "That's what we want."

Soldiers face numerous consequences if they're arrested for DUI or flagged by a commanding officer for problem drinking. They can lose their rank or even be discharged.

"They very much recognize that it's better for them to ask for help and be able to receive it then it is for them to not ask and end up in serious hot water," says Dr. Jolee Darnell, head of the Army Substance Abuse Program at Lewis-McChord.

Darnell says CATEP tends to attract older higher ranking soldiers and officers who've managed to stay under the radar, but who've finally decided to get help.

"It works best for people who recognize that some things are not going right in their life and they need to do some things differently," she says.

While confidentiality is at the heart of the program, weekly meetings and off-duty counseling appointments are what make CATEP different. Soldiers can also meet in civilian clothing, which allows them to keep their ranks private.

Accountability And Follow-Up

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli has pushed for more innovative programs like CATEP.

"All the results that I've seen so far indicate that this is a very, very valuable program," he says.

Chiarelli says, however, the unconventional nature of the program has also hindered Army-wide implementation.

"I don't want to institute a program where somebody comes in and says, 'I'm having a problem with alcohol,' and I look at him and say, 'Come back in five weeks, that's the first available appointment I have,'" he says.

The program's extended off-duty hours have strained counseling resources at the base, and critics are concerned about the lack of accountability and follow-up in a confidential program where command isn't involved.

In fact, Darnell says, during the 18-month pilot, 41 participants dropped out.

Still, she says, CATEP shouldn't be viewed as a failure or as an endpoint.

"The goal is to get people to change their behavior in a way that will cease producing the problems that they're experiencing because of their habits," she says.

Copyright 2011 Puget Sound Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kuow.org.

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