Iraq Vets: Alcoholic Criminals?

Who would have known? Some veterans of Iraq suffer from alcohol and drug abuse. That's the shocking conclusion of "After the Battle, Fighting the Bottle at Home."

The 3,500-word front-page Tuesday story by Lizette Alvarez is actually the fifth in the Times'"War Torn" series, advertised as "A series of articles and multimedia about veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings, or been charged with them, after coming home."

The notorious series begin in January with a universally reviled entry, "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles," which slimed veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as killers while providing zero vital context, showing the murder rate for returning vets was substantially lower than that of the same-age population.

The most recent entry suffers from the same lack of context, as well asheavy reliance on a single anecdote, the case of a veteran who came home a heavy drinker and contributed to the death of a teenager in a drunken driving accident.

[Anthony] Klecker's case is part of a growing body of evidence that alcohol abuse is rising among veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of them trying to deaden the repercussions of war and disorientation of home. While the numbers remain relatively small, experts say and studies indicate that the problem is particularly prevalent among those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as it was after Vietnam. Studies indicate that illegal drug use, much less common than heavy drinking in the military, is up slightly, too.

Increasingly, these troubled veterans are spilling into the criminal justice system. A small fraction wind up in prison for homicides or other major crimes. Far more, though, are involved in drunken bar fights, reckless driving and alcohol-fueled domestic violence. Whatever the particulars, their stories often spool out in unwitting victims, ruptured families, lost jobs and crushing debt.

With the rising awareness of the problem has come mounting concern about the access to treatment and whether enough combat veterans are receiving the help that is available to them.

Having cut way back in the 1990s as the population of veterans declined, the Veterans Health Administration says it is expanding its alcohol- and drug-abuse services. But advocacy groups and independent experts - including members of a Pentagon mental-health task force that issued its report last year - are concerned that much more needs to be done. In May, the House and Senate passed bills that would require the veterans agency to expand substance-abuse screening and treatment for all veterans.

Even though she cited a "growing body of evidence," Alvarez doesn't actually havemuchin the way ofhard statistics, but does have "anecdotal evidence and rising alarm in many military communities" on her side:

Across the military, the precise dimensions of the problem are elusive, especially since the different branches largely keep their own statistics. Many studies do not distinguish between service members who have seen battle and those who have not. What is more, behavior becomes far harder to track when service members leave the military.

Even so, a variety of surveys, as well as anecdotal evidence and rising alarm in many military communities, indicate growing substance abuse among recent combat veterans. Of particular concern are members of the National Guard and reserves, as well as recently discharged service members, who can lose their bearings outside the camaraderie and structure of the military.

In the Army, which has the bulk of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon's most recent survey of health-related behavior, conducted in 2005 but released last year, found that for the first time in more than 20 years, roughly a quarter of soldiers surveyed considered themselves regular heavy drinkers - defined as having five or more drinks at least once a week. The report called the increase - to 24.5 percent in 2005, from 17.2 percent in 1998 - "an issue of concern."


Heavy drinking or drug use frequently figures in what law enforcement officials and commanders at military bases across the country say is a rising number of crimes and other examples of misconduct involving soldiers, marines and recent veterans....This year, a New York Times examination of killings in this country by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan found that drinking or drug use was frequently involved in the crimes. Last month, a soldier at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, was charged with killing a woman in a drunken-driving accident - the third intoxicated soldier there accused of killing a civilian in six months, said the commander, Maj. Gen. Harold B. Bromberg....Substance abuse frequently figures in suicides, which reached a high in the Army last year; alcohol or drugs were cited in 30 percent of those 115 cases, the Pentagon reported.

Of course, substance abuse is often a factor in crime, whether or not the criminals served in Iraq,so Alvarez's link is pretty pointless.

Alvarez eventually gets around to blaming the Iraq War

Running through many of these soldiers' lives is combat trauma or other mental scars of war.

Research has shown that the likelihood of mental health problems rises with the intensity of combat exposure. (In a recent RAND Corporation study, one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of combat stress or major depression.) In turn, service members with such problems more often report heavy drinking or illicit drug use.

In part, this dynamic is rooted in the warrior code. Trained to be tough and ignore their fear, many combat veterans are reluctant to acknowledge psychic wounds. Or they worry that getting help will damage their careers. And so, like Mr. Klecker, they treat themselves with the liquor bottle or illegal drugs.