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UPDATE: Senators introduce military drug abuse bill

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 | 11:28 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — A pair of U.S. senators on opposite sides of the political aisle want the Army to clean up its method for treating soldiers with drug and alcohol problems.

Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, introduced legislation Tuesday calling for changes in the military's approach to substance abuse. The bill was spurred by reports of growing prescription drug abuse by wounded soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood and other Army bases.

McCaskill credits the measure to Fort Leonard Wood whistle-blower John Speckhals, a former substance abuse counselor there who now works at an Army base in Germany. He complained about an approach he said emphasized punishment rather than treatment for addicted troops.

"Substance abuse is a medical problem," McCaskill said. "To think they can't get the help they need, or worse, receive punishment instead of treatment is outrageous. We need to fix this now."

Legal painkiller use by injured troops has increased nearly 70 percent since the start of the Iraq war six years ago, according to Army records. Surveys show that more soldiers are struggling with prescription drug addiction — and seeking help from Army doctors and counselors.

"It's time for the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to elevate the priority of substance use disorder treatment programs," Corker said.

The proposed changes include an independent review of military drug abuse and treatment by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science or a similar outside agency.

Until recently, staffing shortages in the Army Substance Abuse Program at Fort Leonard Wood prevented soldiers seeking help from receiving timely treatment, according to Speckhals and Barbara McDonald, also a civilian Army drug abuse counselor.

McDonald has since lost her job, a move she said was retaliation for speaking out. The Army has declined to discuss personnel matters.

The Missouri base was also enmeshed in a series of court-martials involving illegal drug use or distribution within the 5th Engineer Battalion. The unit supports combat troops by building and guarding roads and bridges and repairing vehicles.

Eight soldiers were convicted by court-martial in 2008 of illegal drug use or distribution. An additional five await trial on similar charges. A dozen have been kicked out of the Army and two others went absent without leave after being implicated in the investigation.

Responding to McCaskill's concerns at a Jan. 27 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would investigate the reported problems.

The bill from McCaskill and Corker calls for military leaders to provide Congress with a "comprehensive plan for the improvement and enhancement" of Department of Defense substance abuse treatment and prevention programs within six months of passage. The legislation calls for creation of a "Center of Excellence" in the Defense Department devoted to substance abuse issues.

McCaskill also wants soldiers who come forward with drug or alcohol problems to have stronger guarantees of confidentiality and not be automatically required to notify their commanding officers, as now occurs.

 


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