By Stephen Spotswood
WASHINGTON — If Navy leadership has anything to do with it, the misleading stereotype of the drunken sailor or hard-drinking Marine will fade into the past.
Though Navy officials note that their alcohol-abuse problems are no greater than the general population and might be less, the Marines began twice-yearly mandatory breathalyzers for personnel on Jan. 1, with the Navy set to begin regular alcohol screening shortly thereafter.
The move is intended as a way of preventing alcohol-related problems, medical and otherwise, before they happen.
Stronger emphasis on identifying Marines and sailors who might be at risk of problems involving alcohol in the future is part of the 21st Century Sailor and Marine initiative announced last spring. The initiative emphasizes responsible use of alcohol and a zero-tolerance drug policy.
The mandatory breathalyzers also come on the heels of an Institute of Medicine (IoM) report released in September that showed alcohol consumption in the military rising substantially during the past decade.
In 1998, 15% of active duty servicemembers reported heavy drinking. That rose to 20% in 2008. In 1998, 35% reported binge drinking — a number that rose to 47% in 2008. An Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) conducted using alcohol-use data from 2008 showed 24.6% of active duty servicemembers had scores in the hazardous category, 4.2% had scores in the harmful category, and 4.5% had scores high enough to suggest possible alcohol dependence.
The IoM report noted, “Routine screening for unhealthy alcohol use and mechanisms to support brief interventions would permit healthcare professionals to point out the risk of excessive alcohol consumptions.”
This is exactly how the Navy envisions its early-intervention screening — education of servicemembers and a prevention of future problems, explained Charles Gould, program manager of the Navy’s Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Program (SARP). “The Navy’s emphasis is to keep people out of trouble before they have an incident.”
The Navy currently screens about 10,000 sailors annually. That number could increase substantially when the mandatory breathalyzers go into effect. Depending upon what the screening indicates and at the discretion of physicians, Navy personnel are recommended for varying levels of treatment.
The first is the “Impact” program — a 20-hour program focused primarily on education the first time a patient enters it.
“We basically focus on education about alcohol usage,” explained Gould. “We’ve incorporated a lot from living and balance programs — exercises making people aware of how alcohol affects their body and mind.”