January 11, 2009 – Army leaders are proposing to end a longtime policy that requires a commanding officer be notified when a soldier voluntarily seeks counseling in hopes of encouraging more GIs to seek aid, according to Army Secretary Pete Geren.
The potential move comes as combat deployments have been linked to increased alcohol abuse, and the Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) is straining to keep pace.
The proposal being worked out between Army personnel and medical commanders is “an important part of a comprehensive effort to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health care and to encourage more soldiers to seek treatment,” Geren said in a statement to USA TODAY on Friday.
Geren’s efforts come as the number of soldiers seeking help for substance abuse has hit record levels. In November, USA TODAY reported that the number of soldiers asking for counseling had increased 25% in five years.
The Army, however, can’t meet the growing demand. One-fourth of the 338 Army drug counseling positions are unfilled, spokeswoman Cynthia Vaughan says.
The program’s clinical director, Wanda Kuehr, said soldiers have waited for help for “fairly long periods of time” at Fort Bragg, Fort Hood and other installations. She did not elaborate.
The Army has no residential treatment facility for substance abuse and only 150 beds Armywide for in-patient care, said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told Geren in a November letter that current Army policies, such as notifying commanders about soldiers seeking help, “seem oriented to disciplinary concerns,” rather than treatment. Geren told McCaskill on Dec. 22 that he is ordering “an immediate and complete review” of ASAP. Suspending the notification rule, he said, could “assure soldiers the program is not punitive.”
A June 2007 Pentagon report said the policy may leave soldiers with the perception that seeking help “results in permanent damage to one’s military career.”
Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general who urged an end to the policy in October, would not comment. But he is working with Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, deputy chief of staff for Army personnel, to change the policy.