January 30, 2009 – A Missouri lawmaker wants service members who seek help for substance abuse problems to be shielded from disciplinary action.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is pushing for a review of military treatment and prevention programs for alcohol and substance abuse to look at whether the threat of punishment for admitting a problem is discouraging people from getting help.
She also is concerned about mismanagement and chronic understaffing of substance abuse programs.
Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Army Secretary Pete Geren have promised McCaskill they will investigate problems, but she is pressing ahead with legislation calling for a comprehensive review of current programs, new research into substance abuse treatment and an independent study of substance abuse in the ranks.
In a statement, McCaskill said her concerns come after looking into whistle-blower complaints involving the substance abuse program at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where the Army employee who pointed out problems said he later suffered reprisals.
Army officials acknowledge that the Army has not been doing enough but said the base now has full staffing and the whistle-blower is being protected.
In a Dec. 23 letter, Geren said the substance abuse program is not disciplinary, but soldiers can face administration or disciplinary action if they continue to abuse alcohol or drugs, engage in misconduct or fail to cooperate in rehabilitation plans. By policy, soldiers who enter treatment on their own can do so anonymously, Geren said.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America wants a defense-wide policy that commands should be notified of a service member seeking voluntary treatment for alcohol or drug abuse only at the discretion of the mental-health professional providing treatment, said Todd Bowers, the group’s government affairs director.
Bowers said his organization also is pushing for lighter sentencing for veterans who have mental health-related substance abuse problems who are convicted of nonviolent crimes.
McCaskill, who is looking for co-sponsors for the legislation she has prepared, said drug and alcohol abuse can be related to stress and mental health problems among service members and veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they deserve to be treated as injured combat veterans.
“Our men and women in uniform deserve the very best health care available,” said McCaskill. “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. We need to fix this now.”