By Nicole Rojas (staff@latinospost.com) | First Posted: Oct 10, 2013 06:53 PM EDT

(Photo : Courtesy of NORC)

Over the past few decades, the number of Hispanics in the military has steadily increased. In the Army alone, the number of enlisted Hispanic soldiers nearly quadrupled from 1979 (3.4 percent) to 2011 (13 percent). As the number of Hispanics in the military continues to rise, it's becoming increasingly important to provide resources to those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues.

Dr. Eric Goplerud, from the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, spoke exclusively to Latinos Post about the risky alcohol use by Hispanics in the military and what can be done to treat them. Goplerud, who is the senior vice-president and director of the department of substance abuse, mental health and criminal justice studies at NORC, said that while Hispanics do suffer from substance abuse problems, the issue is deeply ingrained throughout the military.

“Alcohol is a significant, under-recognized and undertreated problem in the military and for Hispanic military personnel,” Goplerud said during a phone interview. However, the NORC researcher said there are “simple screening questionnaires” that could help health professionals detect risky alcohol use and provide treatment.

Goplerud, who spoke at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy conference last week, highlighted statistics showing high levels of alcohol usage by military personnel, both Hispanic and non-Hispanic. “Twenty-seven percent of Army troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a higher risk of drinking behavior but fewer than five out of a 1,000 who have risky drinking patterns ever gets treated,” he noted.

“If you take a look across the use of heavy drinking, the service that you’re in has a far greater effect than your ethnicity,” Goplerud continued. According to the NORC director, a study conducted in 2011 and released in 2012 showed that both white, non-Hispanic and Hispanic military members across all services report “virtually identical rates” for heavy alcohol use, about 8.8 to 9.2 percent.

Goplerud noted that those numbers were “about the same” for members of the Army and the Navy, but they skyrocketed for those in the Marine Corps. Conversely, the rates of heavy alcohol usage in the Air Force were the lowest of all the services at around 4 percent.

“The culture of the military and the military service is very powerful,” Goplerud stressed. “It appears the norms of alcohol use are stronger by service than they are by ethnicity.”

Increased drinking by military members can lead to a host of other issues, he said. “Domestic violence associated to alcohol use increased by 54 percent between 2006 and 2011,” Goplerud noted. Meanwhile, “soldier alcohol and drug incidence--those are drunk offenses, drunk and disorderly [and] DUIs--increased 25 percent over the last three years.”

Goplerud added that in talks with Rear Admiral Sean S. Buck, the head of the Navy’s 21st Century Sailor office, he estimates that 95 percent of the problems that come into the office are “fueled by alcohol.”

Due to rising problems with military alcohol abuse, military health clinics are actively screening servicemen and women by “routinely asking a couple of simple questions,” Goplerud said.

According to Goplerud, the Army has even come up with an acronym for health professionals to follow: BRIEF. The acronym asks health care providers to “Bring attention patient’s elevated level of drinking, Recommend limiting use or abstaining, Inform about the effects of alcohol, Explore and help/support in choosing a drinking goal [and] Follow up.”

This method not only supports military families before drinking becomes a major issue, Goplerud said, but also “places responsibility where it resides, which is with the individual and his or her family.”

Goplerud also said that NORC and the military have developed a web-based interactive training program for military health care professionals to prepare them to properly deal with patients who may have elevated alcohol usage.

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