FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — The number of soldiers seeking help for substance abuse has climbed 25% in the past five years, but the Army's counseling program has remained significantly understaffed and struggling to meet the demand, according to Army records.
About 13,500 soldiers sought drug counseling this year and 7,200 soldiers were diagnosed with an abuse or dependency issue and enrolled in counseling, Army data show. That compares with 11,170 soldiers reporting to drug counseling in 2003, when 5,727 enrolled.
Army records show 2.38% of all soldiers had positive results on routine drug urinalysis screening, a 10-year record. In 2004, when combat troops returned from Iraq in large numbers, 1.72% had positive results.
The Army requires one drug counselor for every 2,000 soldiers, yet is currently operating with one for 3,100 soldiers, a chronic shortage exacerbated by the increase in substance abuse cases.
The problem has been more severe here, where three counselors had been serving 14,000 soldiers and 1,000 Marines — one for every 5,000 troops. In recent months, three more counselors joined the staff.
Les McFarling, director of the Army Substance Abuse Programs, said the Army is authorized for 283 drug and alcohol counselors and despite new staffing this year, is still 38% short of full strength.
Col. Theresa Sullivan, former hospital commander, agreed that the program has had problems but insisted that no one was denied counseling.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is demanding a review of the program after her staff investigated allegations that more than 150 troops at the installation here were denied substance abuse counseling because of a staff shortage.
"If it was that bad at Fort Leonard Wood, it very well could be an Army-wide problem," McCaskill said Wednesday, urging aggressive hiring efforts. "This is about grabbing the military and shaking them and saying, 'Hey, you've got to focus (on this).' "
In a Nov. 12 letter to Army Secretary Pete Geren that McCaskill's staff provided to USA TODAY, McCaskill said the fort's program had been "in shambles" for years.
"How is it that a program can so deteriorate at a time when drug use and alcohol abuse is known to be closely tied to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), suicides, criminal behavior, divorce and domestic abuse, all of which have substantially increased in recent years in the Army?" McCaskill wrote.
USA TODAY reported last month that narcotic pain-relief prescriptions for injured troops jumped from 30,000 a month to 50,000 since the Iraq war began, raising concerns about potential drug abuse and addiction.
By Gregg Zoroya
Posted Friday, November 21, 2008