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Soldiers Are Coming Home Injured and Addicted -- Will We Pay Our Debt to Our Vets?

Soldiers come home from the two wars with a staggering rate of brain injuries and the addictions paired with them, but to treat them could cost $1 trillion.
 
 
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Robert LeHeup will be the first to admit that he's an alcoholic. “I drink so that I don't go to shit,” says LeHeup, a 30-year-old bartender living in Columbus, South Carolina. “I drink because I have to.”

LeHeup is a former Marine sergeant, who served two grueling tours in Afghanistan during the US invasion and early occupation. He drinks to dull memories of the everyday chaos and carnage. He drinks to tolerate his disgust at the raucous bar-goers who have no idea how easy life is in America, compared to the casual violence and grinding poverty of Afghanistan. He drinks because, in the Marines, that is just what everybody does.

“There was this drive to prove to each other that we can handle our liquor,” recalls LeHeup, who increasingly channels much of his distress more productively into his burgeoning writing career. “In the Marines, when I was stateside, I drank a fifth before I went out drinking, you know what I mean?” 

LeHeup, in his ongoing struggle with alcoholism, is anything but an outlier among this generation of military service-members. In fact, more than a decade after the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an unprecedented number of men and women in the US military are currently in the throes of addiction.

In addition to the incalculable personal tragedies, the long-term socioeconomic costs range from healthcare to lost productivity, and could eventually rival even the  estimated total costs of waging the two decadelong wars: $3 to $4 trillion dollars. (As sold to the American people by the Bush administration,  the price tag of each war was said to be under $100 billion.) Recent estimates are lacking, but a  1997 report from the Office of the Inspector General warned that in a single year, the single problem of alcohol abuse among soldiers and veterans cost the country nearly $1 billion dollars, widely viewed as a conservative count.

There is no shortage of studies and statistics on the extent of the problem. Consider these: Between 24% and 38% of service-members between the ages of 18 and 25 (depending on their branch) qualified as “heavy drinkers” in a 2006 study, compared to 15% of the civilian population. 

total of 11,200 active-duty soldiers were busted for using illicit drugs in 2011, up from 9,400 in 2010.

And 17% of active-duty personnel admitted to “misusing” prescription drugs—primarily opiate painkillers—in a 2008  survey by the Department of Defense. By comparison, a 2010  survey of civilians found that 6% reported “nonmedical use” of prescription meds.

Of course, the consumption of alcohol or illicit drugs by soldiers is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, warriors have been imbibing for thousands of years. In the  words of retired Army Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, they drink “to celebrate, to forget and to fortify themselves for the next day's battle.”

The phenomenon continues to this day. According to a 2004  study, young recruits report that they drink because alcohol is viewed as “a necessary ingredient of successful group socializing,” because it is inexpensive and ubiquitous, and because it is “the only thing there is to do during off hours.” 

Where official military policy is concerned, alcohol use is strictly prohibited during deployment. On installation, imbibing—regardless of one's age—was once a mainstay of military culture. More recently, leaders have frowned upon such consumption. “Alcohol use is greater than anything else,” Major General Anthony Cucolo said in 2009. “We are most concerned about alcohol use and abuse [among soldiers].”