Fort Lewis to test alcohol treatment

Fort Lewis – A soldier with a drinking problem faces a dilemma. The Army offers treatment for alcohol abuse, but the soldier’s chain of command must be kept informed. For those hoping to make a career in the military, this can be a dealbreaker.

The Army hopes to fix that.

This week it launches the Confidential Alcohol Treatment and Education pilot program at Madigan Army Medical Center and two other Army installations.

The program is the first of its kind and is bold in one of its key provisions: When a soldier seeks help for alcohol abuse, his or her superior officers won’t be notified.

“The military does recognize there are increasing problems with alcohol,” said Jolee Darnell, the clinical director and regional coordinator for the Army Substance Abuse Program at Fort Lewis. “That’s why they’re putting this program in place.”

Meetings with counselors will be scheduled after normal duty hours at the old Madigan complex.

Notes in a soldier’s medical file will be accessible only under limited conditions, such as with the person’s consent, a court order, or if he or she represents an imminent danger to self or others.

More than 10,400 soldiers across the Army were referred to alcohol-abuse treatment from October 2008 to June 2009, according to the Pentagon. The Army treated 12,590 during the previous 12-month period.

At Fort Lewis, 475 soldiers are now receiving some kind of substance-abuse treatment, with 60 percent battling alcohol abuse, Darnell said.

The new program employs four counselors and will treat up to 100 patients at a time. If a greater demand presents itself, Darnell said, it’s possible more counselors will be hired.

A soldier is not eligible for the program if he or she had a previous alcohol- or drug-related incident – such as an arrest or positive urinalysis test – or if a commander makes a treatment referral.

Confidentiality also is not available to specialists in certain high-risk fields, such as aviation, transportation or nuclear surety.

Most soldiers in the program will likely seek treatment for 60 to 90 days. It is offered only to active-duty soldiers at Fort Lewis.

Participants remain eligible to re-enlist in the Army and still can receive promotions.

Darnell said her office already is taking calls from several people interested in the program.

The pilot program lasts six months, at which point the Army will determine whether it should continue.

The other two test sites for the program are Schofield Barracks, Hawaii and Fort Richardson, Alaska. The three installations were chosen because of staffing levels, varying troop populations (Fort Lewis is the largest with about 35,000) and because they are home to Stryker brigades, which are frequently rotated into Iraq and Afghanistan. The pressures of deployment are known to contribute to substance abuse and mental health problems, Darnell said.

The program already is in demand elsewhere. U.S. senators from Colorado publicly urged the Army last month to include Fort Carson in the program.

Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet made the request in response to a study of violent behavior from soldiers with 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division after they returned to Fort Carson from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.