After Army Sgt. Edison Bayas‘s car finally came to a rest on its roof, his jumbled, drunken thoughts immediately turned to the men he left in Iraq, as if he was still on the battlefield.
But he wasn’t in Iraq. He was in an El Paso intersection with a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit, his 19-year-old victim nearly decapitated in her car a few feet away.
Bayas, a decorated career soldier, is now serving a 15-year-prison sentence for intoxication manslaughter. He’s just one of thousands of soldiers whose problems with alcohol spun out of control in the midst of two wars, mounting pressure and a continuing stigma that macho guys don’t get help.
After years of increasing alcohol abuse within their ranks, soldiers are now seeking treatment in record numbers, according to new figures put out by the Army.
Nearly 9,200 soldiers sought treatment for alcohol abuse in 2009, a 56 percent increase since the war in Iraq started. Another 11,892 were required to undergo “alcohol education” — a 16 to 20 hour course for soldiers who were disciplined for an alcohol-related incident, but not found to have an actual abuse problem.
“There has always been a healthy work-hard, play-hard ethos to the military,” Tom Tarantino, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told ABCNews.com. “It can turn very quickly over from being recreational to a problem.”
Drinking with Army buddies is a legacy that goes back likely as long as the Army itself. But as military brass worries over increases in substance abuse, suicides and mental health issues in its active-duty service members and veterans, alcohol use has come to be seen as a serious problem, rather than a rite of passage.
Army officials say 85 percent of the soldiers who seek outpatient substance abuse treatment are there because of alcohol. The Army is now in the midst of a nationwide search for additional counselors in an effort to reduce the wait time for help from days down to hours. There is currently one counselor for every 2,000 soldiers.
But is it too little too late? Maybe, some soldiers and veterans say.
“I don’t necessarily think they pay enough attention until it’s too late,” said Brian, a three-tour Fort Hood area soldier who did not want his last name used.
More than two years sober and on temporary disability from the Army with traumatic brain injury and other extensive combat-related medical problems, Brian said it was the realization that his career in the military was over that prompted him to get treatment.
“I realized I wasn’t ever going to have a job that was going to enable me to drink like in the military,” Brian said.