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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The past decade of war has significantly altered the global landscape, but it has also had a less obvious effect on soldiers’ mental health.

The Army has posted 130 new job openings this week in an effort to increase its staff of substance abuse counselors by about 30 percent.

While most people consider employment opportunities of any kind a positive sign in the current economic climate, this decision by the Army speaks to the troubling rise of alcohol abuse by soldiers returning from war. As the AP reports:

The number of troops abusing alcohol has roughly doubled in the last five years as soldiers go through the stressful cycle of training, serving in the wars, readjusting to home life and then doing it all over again months later, Dr. Les McFarling, head of the army’s substance program, said in an interview.
Some 13,000 soldiers were treated for substance abuse last year, all but about 1,900 for alcohol and the rest for drugs like marijuana and cocaine, McFarling said.

Although the military denies a direct link between drug abuse and the number of deployments, they say many soldiers turn to alcohol as a way to readjust or to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thousands of soldiers struggle with PTSD and do not have access to counseling and treatment. Up until last week, many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD were not receiving medical benefits from the military. Fortunately, a class-action lawsuit settled on Friday ensured that as many as 4,000 veterans who were medically discharged between 2003 and 2008 because of PTSD will now receive the necessary compensation and medical attention.

With researchers estimating that up to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will be diagnosed with PTSD, the military needs to ensure that soldiers returning from war have resources to help them settle back into civilian life instead of letting them struggle alone and, as is often the case, turn to alcohol and other drugs.

The new Army counselors, whose pay will range from $50,000 to $106,000, are intended to help soldiers, their families, retirees, and eligible civilian employees at bases around the world. With constant arguments about cutting government spending, it’s reassuring to know that at least some military money will go to caring for the soldiers who are dealing with the aftermath of war.

Even though the hiring of additional counselors is a step toward helping soldiers who are struggling with alcohol abuse, a more effective approach would be to critically evaluate the wars that often contribute to the abuse in the first place. With prolonged wars dragging on in remote destinations, it’s understandable that soldiers will have a difficult time readjusting to life after combat and might turn to alcohol. No matter how many counselors the Army hires, they cannot erase the impact of ongoing wars.

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