Army Alcoholics: More Soldiers Hitting the Bottle

Army seeking more counselors after 56 percent increase in soldiers getting help.

February 17, 2010, 11:48 AM

Feb. 22, 2010— -- After Army Sgt. Edison Bayas' 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 the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, told "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.

Soldier on Alcohol Abuse: 'I'd Drink Until My Body Shut Down'

Brian, a social drinker when he signed up for the Army nearly 12 years ago, said he began drinking in earnest after his first deployment to Iraq in 2003. Involved in four separate bomb attacks in that one tour, "I started drinking heavily to mask the pain."

No one, he said, would have respect a commander who whined about his pain and took sick leave.

"Every night it was a minimum of a 12-pack, up to 24," he said. "I stayed at home, would sit and drink until 10 'o clock. I'd drink until my body shut down."

By Brian's third tour in 2005, he was slamming the "near beers" you could buy on base that smelled like the real thing and had a very low alcohol content. He'd also get real beer in care packages from friends and family that didn't realize he was addicted.

His soldiers would sometimes smell the alcohol on him, but Brian said he'd always have an excuse to brush it off.

When a potential fourth tour raised questions about his physical ability to lead his command -- he'd had multiple shoulder surgeries and had mesh implanted in his abdomen -- Brian was put into the Army's Warrior Transition Unit for injured soldiers. And that's where he realized he had to stop drinking.

He called his wife and told her he was going to get treatment. He later found out she'd already been planning to take the children and leave him.

Tarantino, a retired Army captain, said stories like Brian's drive home the need for more attention to combat-related mental health issues.

"Alcohol abuse is a symptom of the larger problem. It is not the larger problem," he said.

Army brass rhetoric has repeatedly sought to assure the public that treatment for any mental health problems will not negatively affect a soldier's career, but some say they still fear being seen as weak.

"There is a stigma with saying 'I need help,'" Tarantino said. "We're all taught to be strong and macho and we can lift the world on our shoulders."

Young Soldiers Disproportionately Affected by Alcohol Abuse

In Bayas' case, his problems with alcohol went back years, even before he deployed to Iraq.

His attorney, Miguel Villalba, said Bayas, 36, had curbed his drinking after two DUI arrests in the 1990s, while he was in the Army.

But after pulling his best friend's body out of an exploded tank on his first tour in Iraq in 2004 and going through a divorce after he got home, he went back to the bottle. And, his lawyers argued, it was no secret he had a problem. Looking at his 18-year military record, "his alcohol issue was never really addressed."

"That he had a drinking problem was known to the world," Villalba said. "And this was happening at a time when he was being given all kinds of commendations."

The drunk driving accident that killed the 19-year-old college student happened just 10 days after Bayas got back from Iraq. He plowed through her car, which was stopped for a red light, going 60 mph without ever slowing down.

When police on scene asked him where he was headed, Villalba said, Bayas responded, "I was on my way to get my men. I was in Iraq. I was on my way to get my men."

Bayas, his lawyer said, was not diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder until after his arrest. He pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge.

"He accepted full responsibility for it," Villalba said. "The effects of what has happened have been ravaging" for Bayas and the victim's family.

The majority of the soldiers seeking counseling for alcohol abuse are young -- 18 to 25 years old.

Army spokesman Hank Minitrez told that they are trying to do better with reaching the young soldiers earlier.

"For many, shipping out for the Army is the first time away from home for our young soldiers, so they are experimenting with life so to speak," Minitrez wrote in an e-mail. "We are also dealing with younger brains that have not fully developed their executive functions -- that little guy on our shoulder that says, 'Don't do it!'"

Alcohol Abuse in the Army Fuels Legal, Financial, Domestic Problems

Gary Klozenbucher, clinical director of the Army Substance Abuse Program at Fort Riley in Kansas, told that most of the soldiers they see in treatment are in the early stages of their addiction.

Some come in scared after being referred by a commander, he said. Others are defiant and insist they have their drinking under control. While many come in with a mix of substance abuse issues, alcohol is "absolutely" the most prevalent.

But Klozenbucher wasn't convinced that deployments create alcohol problems.

"The majority of the time, the soldiers that we are seeing that have identified as having alcohol and drug problems after a deployment, most of those soldiers have had some history prior to the deployment," he said. "As far as the development of a drug problem, that can play a major role in the progression of the addiction."

He did concur, however, that alcohol abuse can be a catalyst for a host of other problems seen in Fort Riley soldiers, including legal, financial and domestic issues.

"Certainly we're seeing those problems with our soldiers," Klozenbucher said. "There are a strong relationships with drug and alcohol problems."

Experts -- both current Army employees and veterans -- say the difference between today's soldiers and previous generations is that alcohol is viewed as more of a problem rather than a bonding experience.

"Back when I was in the Army, back in the 1970s and '80s, we assumed drinking was mandatory," joked Larry Scott, an Army veteran and founder of, which keeps tabs on programs and news about the Army and Veterans Affairs. "Really don't recall too many people who didn't drink."

Scott even remembered a commander in Korea once pleading with his soldiers to try and keep it to two on-duty drinks at lunch.

"Drinking was as big a problem then as it is now. It just wasn't as highlighted," he said. "I would say they're moving in the right direction."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events