By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor
Officials within the U.S. military are actively targeting over-boozing troops at home and abroad, but addiction specialists and service members say binge drinking remains as rampant as ever inside the armed services.
Among the new initiatives to stem the problem: The Marines, starting next year, will give random breathalyzer tests to Corps members; the Air Force and Army curbed some overnight liquor sales for U.S. military personnel in Germany; and American service members in Japan were barred from leaving their residences after consuming more than one adult beverage.
The restrictions seem to have been independently created by brass within each branch — for example, the new rules for service members in Japan follow the October sexual assault of an Okinawa woman allegedly carried out by two U.S. sailors. Still, the fresh regulations arise three months after a study commissioned by the Department of Defense found that binge drinking by active-duty troops now constitutes “a public health crisis,” noting as well that drunken soldiers were cited as a problem as far back as the Revolutionary War.
“But we can do better,” said Dr. Charles P. O’Brien, chairman of the panel that authored the report and director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania. “We have a lot of research, a lot of medication, and a lot of techniques that have been developed over the years. We don’t have to be stuck in the old ways of handling things.
“We found, though, that in the whole Army, there’s only one doctor who’s trained in addiction medicine. This is a specialty where we need more people and they’re not there. So, most people are not getting treated with evidence-based medicine,” O’Brien told NBC News. The study was issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Medicine.
Worse, O’Brien said he has learned — from emails he received in recent days from active-duty personnel — that one of the study’s most simple suggestions has not been implemented: that the military’s health system, TRICARE, alter its rules and allow substance-abusing service members to be treated with anti-addiction medications like Suboxone.
“We met a general who is on Suboxone but they (military doctors) are not letting other people have it,” O’Brien said. “It’s ridiculous … When we briefed (military leaders in September), they expressed interest in following our recommendations. But, so far, I don’t have any concrete evidence that anything has happened.”
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