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Setting sail toward recovery, worldwide

February 10, 2011
by Mark G. Mishek, CEO Hazelden
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U.S. Navy’s web-based SUD recovery site sets example that other armed forces should follow

Two hundred and fifty years after the British Royal Navy issued alcoholic “grog” to its soldiers as a reward for their service, the U.S. Navy is courageously taking aim against the last vestiges of a military culture in which alcohol has been intertwined with drinking ceremonies and shore leave.

Addiction treatment professionals have long known that staying connected with a supportive community is one of the most effective ways for people in recovery to sustain sobriety. But how can military personnel in recovery attend an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting when he or she is aboard a ship for weeks or months? What if a marine needs support while serving in Afghanistan?

So the recent announcement that the U.S. Navy has implemented a $3.25 million effort to bring Web-based continuing care to military personnel in recovery wherever they may serve comes as a welcome move.
The Navy MORE (My Ongoing Recovery Experience) program, created in collaboration with Hazelden, is available free to all active-duty military personnel, family members and retirees who are served within the Navy Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation Services anywhere in the world where Internet access is available.

Navy MORE gives the military personnel who are defending our country 24/7 Web-access to online tools and support groups facilitated by a licensed addiction counselor. During a time of “drawing down” troops, why is it so important to “draw up” recovery services for our military? Consider that:

  • 17 percent of Navy personnel described themselves as “heavy drinkers” in 2005, according to Department of Defense Surveys of Health-Related Behaviors among Military Personnel.
  • One in four soldiers say they’re abusing prescription drugs such as pain relievers, according to a 2009 Pentagon health study of 28,500 troops. That’s a rate three times higher than the next most abused drugs-marijuana and amphetamines.
  • As recently as five years ago, sailors were dying in alcohol-related crashes at a rate of one every 17 days, according to the U.S. Navy Safety Center. At that rate, a sailor who completes a 20-year career would have lost 1,197 shipmates due to alcohol-related vehicle crashes.

The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have brought with them an unprecedented level of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and addiction. Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey estimated that drug abuse by U.S. military in Afghanistan had increased by 200 percent since 2006.
If we ask these men and women to stand in harm’s way when they serve overseas, how can we not owe them treatment when some turn to drugs to cope with the stress of the battlefield? What is so gratifying about the Navy’s adoption of the MORE continuing care program is its decision to fight the stigma of addiction and bring support for recovery into naval bases, ships and homes.
Today, the Navy offers military men and women help from more than 200 Navy substance abuse counselors working on 47 bases and 13 shipboard sites in 20 states and seven foreign countries.

As a person in long-term recovery myself, I applaud the Navy for making the decision to stand by its sailors and other military personnel, families and retirees in recovery. The 18-month period after addiction treatment is rife with potentially devastating setbacks if you’re not connected to people in the recovery community who are watching out for you.

Unfortunately for many in other branches of service, the military remains a culture where soldiers are expected to carry out their mission without showing emotion under pressure. Taking part in a 12-Step program doesn’t seem to square with that stoic image.

Soldiers are worried that if they seek treatment for addiction, it will end their military career; in some cases, a soldier must decide between treatment vs. deployment and service. Each branch of the military has different rules and stigmas; in some branches, a hard-fighting soldier is still synonymous with a hard-drinking soldier.

Based on the Navy’s model of success, we must ensure that across every branch of the military, no soldier wishing to fight his or her addiction lacks access to treatment – whether it be inpatient or outpatient care , or post-treatment continuing care, both in-person and online.

If we trust these men and women to safeguard our national security, we must live up to their trust that America will be there when they need support beyond the field of battle—as they combat the disease of addiction to alcohol and other drugs.

Mark G. Mishek is president and CEO of Hazelden, the national non-profit organization offering a full range of alcohol and drug addiction treatment, along with addiction research, public advocacy and publishing of addiction and recovery-related materials.

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