March 13, 2007
For U.S. Troops at War, Liquor Is Spur to Crime
By PAUL von ZIELBAUER
In May 2004, Specialist Justin J. Lillis got drunk on what he called “hajji juice,” a clear Iraqi moonshine smuggled onto an Army base in Balad, Iraq, by civilian contractors, and began taking potshots with his M-16 service rifle.
“He shot up some contractor’s rental car,” said Phil Cave, a lawyer for Specialist Lillis, 24. “He hopped in a Humvee, drove around and shot up some more things. He shot into a housing area” and at soldiers guarding the base entrance.
Six months later, at an Army base near Baghdad, after a night of drinking an illegal stash of whiskey and gin, Specialist Chris Rolan of the Third Brigade, Third Infantry Division, pulled his 9mm service pistol on another soldier and shot him dead.
And in March 2006, in perhaps the most gruesome crime committed by American troops in Iraq, a group of 101st Airborne Division soldiers stationed in Mahmudiya raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killed her and her family after drinking several cans of locally made whiskey supplied by Iraqi Army soldiers, military prosecutors said.
Alcohol, strictly forbidden by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan, is involved in a growing number of crimes committed by troops deployed to those countries. Alcohol- and drug-related charges were involved in more than a third of all Army criminal prosecutions of soldiers in the two war zones — 240 of the 665 cases resulting in convictions, according to records obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Seventy-three of those 240 cases involve some of the most serious crimes committed, including murder, rape, armed robbery and assault. Sex crimes accounted for 12 of the convictions.
The 240 cases involved a roughly equal number of drug and alcohol offenses, although alcohol-related crimes have increased each year since 2004.
Despite the military’s ban on all alcoholic beverages — and strict Islamic prohibitions against drinking and drug use — liquor is cheap and ever easier to find for soldiers looking to self-medicate the effects of combat stress, depression or the frustrations of extended deployments, said military defense lawyers, commanders and doctors who treat soldiers’ emotional problems.
“It’s clear that we’ve got a lot of significant alcohol problems that are pervasive across the military,” said Dr. Thomas R. Kosten, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston. He traces their drinking and drug use to the stress of working in a war zone. “The treatment that they take for it is the same treatment that they took after Vietnam,” Dr. Kosten said. “They turn to alcohol and drugs.”
The use of alcohol and drugs in war zones appears to reflect a broader trend toward heavier and more frequent drinking among all military personnel, but especially in the Army and Marine Corps, the two services doing most of the fighting, Pentagon officials and military health experts said.
A Pentagon health study released in January, for instance, found that the rate of binge drinking in the Army shot up by 30 percent from 2002 to 2005, and “may signal an increasing pattern of heavy alcohol use in the Army.”
While average rates of alcohol consumption in the Navy and Air Force have steadily declined since 1980, the year the military’s health survey began, they have significantly increased in the Army and Marine Corps and exceed civilian rates, the Pentagon study showed. For the first time since 1985, more than a quarter of all Army members surveyed said they regularly drink heavily, defined as having five or more drinks at one sitting.
The rate of illicit drug use also increased among military members in 2005, to an estimated 5 percent, nearly double the rate measured in 1998, a trend that the study called “cause for concern.”
The study also found other health problems in the military, from the growing popularity of chewing tobacco to a 20 percent increase during the past decade in service members who are considered overweight.
Lynn Pahland, a director in the Pentagon’s Health Affairs office, said the rising rates of heavy drinking and illegal drug use among active-duty military personnel are particularly troubling inside the Defense Department. “It is very serious,” Ms. Pahland said in an interview. “It is a huge concern.”
In the military, seeking help for psychological problems, including alcohol and drug abuse, is considered a taboo, especially among officers competing for promotions. Several officers interviewed for this article said the Pentagon was not doing enough to reduce that stigma.
Though the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars on several initiatives to reverse the trend, including a new Web site that deglamorizes drinking, financing to combat alcohol abuse has fallen over time, a Pentagon spokesman said. Spending on programs to reduce alcohol abuse, smoking and obesity dropped to $7.74 million in the current fiscal year from $12.6 million in fiscal year 2005 — a 39 percent decline.
Some military doctors and other mental health experts said the Army’s greater use of so-called moral waivers, which allow recruits with criminal records to enlist, may also be a factor in the increased drug and alcohol use.
Getting liquor or drugs in Iraq is not difficult. One of the most common ways to smuggle in brand name gin or clear rum is in bottles of mouthwash sent from friends back home, soldiers said. Blue or yellow food coloring makes the liquid look medicinal. Some Army medics have been known to fill intravenous fluid bags with vodka, Army officers said.
In Iraq, liquor of a distinctly more dubious quality can be purchased from Iraqi Army soldiers or civilian contractors working on American bases, and Iraqi soldiers have sold locally produced prescription drugs to American troops for a tidy profit.
Commanders have not always regarded drinking as a problem. The Army “was a culture in the 1970s that encouraged drinking,” said a retired Army colonel. “You’d go out drinking together and you’d find your buddy hugging the toilet at the officer’s club and think nothing of it.”
Command tolerance for such behavior began changing in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, “if you had more than a couple drinks at the club, people started looking at you strange,” the retired colonel said.
But at a time when the military is fighting two major ground wars, the often serious consequences of heavy drinking has emerged with increasing clarity as more troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental health problems, military officials and mental health experts said.
“I think the real story here is in the suicide and stress, and the drinking is just a symptom of it,” said Charles P. O’Brien, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine who served as a Navy doctor during the Vietnam War. There is a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq veterans, he said, adding that “there’s been a lot of suicide in the active-duty servicemen.”
More than 90 percent of sex crimes prosecuted by the military involve alcohol abuse, defense lawyers and military doctors said. Roughly half of the marines charged with crimes in Iraq exhibit clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a Marine defense lawyer said.
“They turn to alcohol and drugs for an escape,” he said.
The health study released in January was produced for the Pentagon by RTI International, a nonprofit research organization. Robert M. Bray, the group’s project director, first agreed to be interviewed for this article but later declined after a Defense Department spokesman said he was not available to comment.
In the past two years, though, top military officials have begun talking publicly about the danger that excessive drinking among the troops.
In 2005, the Army’s deputy chief of staff at the time, Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, wrote in an editorial in a magazine for Army leaders that the rising rate of heavy drinking and drug use “seriously impacts mission readiness.”
General Hagenbeck, now the superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, said more than half of soldiers discharged for misconduct had also been disciplined for drug or alcohol use within the previous year.
“When one soldier has an alcohol or other drug incident, it impacts the whole unit,” General Hagenbeck wrote.
That kind of ripple effect has played out repeatedly in Iraq, military defense lawyers said, as soldiers who drink or use drugs commit crimes and hinder their unit’s combat and support missions.
Specialist Lillis, for example, was given a bad conduct discharge and sentenced to 10 years in prison as punishment for his drunken shooting spree; he is in a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. A military judge sentenced Specialist Rolan, who testified that he drank to relieve depression in Iraq, to 33 years in prison for killing a fellow soldier.
Two of the soldiers charged in the Mahmudiya case pleaded guilty to murder, and a former Army private described as the ringleader, Steven D. Green, is awaiting trial for rape and murder in a federal district court.
Last year, the Pentagon spent $2 million to initiate its “That Guy” campaign, (http://www.thatguy.com/), which recommends that service members “reject binge drinking because it detracts from the things they care about: family, friends, dating, sex, money and reputation.”
The Pentagon is poised to launch another Web-based antidrinking campaign this summer.
Capt. Robert DeMartino, a doctor with the United States Health Service who is coordinating the project, said the hope is that service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will use the site to find help coping with post-deployment problems, including alcohol dependency.
Andrew Lehren contributed reporting.