‘Gambling addiction on steroids’: Fears of gambling crisis at heart of US military | Game

dAve Yeager didn’t join the US military to become a pathological gambler. But after re-enlisting as a food inspection specialist in the wake of 9/11, Yeager arrived at his base hotel in Seoul, Korea, feeling overwhelmed and restless. “I’m walking and I find a casino-style slot machine room,” says the 57-year-old former sergeant. “As soon as I sat down, the first thing I noticed was that my shoulders started to relax. Then I won and it was like a hit of dopamine. In that moment, all the fear, anger and stress he felt simply disappeared.”

Suddenly and without warning, a night of gambling here and there turned into a seven-day-a-week addiction, an addiction that led him to call home to ask for more money, pawn personal belongings, and burglarize his unit. When a demotion failed to curb Yeager’s reckless behavior, his bosses gave up.

“My commander, a colonel I really respect, basically said in a nutshell, ‘We have no idea what to do with you because you’re such a stellar actor,'” he recalls of the come-to-Jesus meeting that preceded his transfer. to a duty station in the U.S. “No one ever used the word game. It was ‘this problem you have’.”

While the boom unleashed by the legalization of sports betting in 2018 raised fears of an emerging addiction crisis, this institutional problem – at the heart of the US military – dates back decades, to rooms like the ones Yeager ventured into. Korea.

In 1951, Congress banned slot machines on US military bases. In the 1970s, the Army and Air Force removed them from foreign bases only to slowly bring them back in the 1980s, with the idea of ​​preventing troops from getting into trouble off the bases.

The U.S. military currently operates more than 3,000 slot machines on bases in 12 countries, up from 8,000 slot machines in 94 countries in 1999, according to the Pentagon. This is in addition to the other games of chance the military sponsors on bases, in which service members as young as 18 can participate.

The remaining slot machines alone raise more than $100 million a year, money that each branch allocates to groups that support “morale, welfare and recreation” initiatives across the board, such as movie theaters and golf courses. None of that money, Yeager notes, goes toward education, screening or prevention. “When you fall into a gambling problem,” he says, “it’s not treated as a mental health problem or an addiction. “It is treated as a money problem and a disciplinary issue.”

Meanwhile, service members are digging deeper and deeper into the hole. A 2003 analysis of patient records at a Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center found that, of the patient population who had attempted suicide, 64% blamed gambling-related harm for driving them over the edge. . Three years later, the suicidal death of a decorated Army helicopter pilot forced the general public to take notice of the military’s gambling problem.

A 2016 survey of Iraq War veterans found that 4.2% had become risky gamblers after being deployed. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, an estimated 56,000 active duty service members may meet criteria for gambling disorder, which more generally affects about 1% of Americans, about the same percentage of the adult population. currently on active duty. Both demographic groups are heavily skewed toward men.

In a 2021 Rutgers University study on gambling in the military, researcher Mark van der Maas deduced that active and retired military service members were more than twice as likely to become problem gamblers as the general population, and Even that may be underestimating the real numbers. by quite a margin. “People tend not to think of the different things they do as gambling with a capital G because it’s a very morally charged term,” van der Maas says. “A sports bettor, for example, might not think that he is betting because he dedicates a lot of time and research to it.”

Van der Maas’s research suggests a connection between military service and poor mental outcomes for women, a less-studied gaming group compared to men. “Generally speaking, there are fewer women with gaming disorder than men,” she says. “But when we talk about the reasons why people gamble, women are more likely to say they gamble to help deal with negative emotional states.

“In both the United States and Canada, women in military service or law enforcement are exposed to sexual harassment and assault at work. “Understanding how being in that emotionally stressful environment potentially leads to gaming disorder in women is an area we need to pay more attention to.”

Although gambling has been recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders since 1980, the military is no better at addressing the problem than other American institutions that do not view gambling on par with drug or alcohol addiction. (Some insurance companies have only just begun to cover treatment for gambling problems.)

Only since 2019 has the Department of Defense required annual screening for gaming disorders as part of the overall health assessment of service members, in addition to conducting random surveys of active-duty soldiers. “Early detection and treatment of gaming disorder and other health-related behavioral problems are critical to maintaining the overall well-being and operational effectiveness of our forces,” a Department of Defense spokesperson said. Prior to this statement, neither the Department of Defense nor the VA had commented publicly on efforts to curb problem gambling within their ranks.

Still, the military’s regular checks for gambling are not as rigorous as those used for substance abuse or physical fitness. “Three quick questions would really be enough to at least indicate whether someone needs further follow-up,” says van der Maas.

This relaxed attitude makes military members especially vulnerable to gambling addiction. “When you think about the military, they’re very close-knit,” says Heather Chapman, a psychologist who runs the play program at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA, one of the few residential facilities in the country that focuses on this disorder. “It almost becomes like a family, and what you see is that the behavior becomes integrated into the family structure, something to do when they have downtime, whether it’s slot machines or a Texas Hold’em tournament. It doesn’t have the immediate problems that drugs and alcohol can have. There is no obvious filter for gambling, other than financial issues, which can affect a person’s clearance if they have significant debt or file for bankruptcy.”

Gambling can seem like an especially appealing escape from a high-stress environment that conditions workers to accept risks, suppress individual problems, and finish jobs they start. “They teach you from day one, leave your problems at the door; you have a mission to accomplish,” Yeager says. “The problem is, even when they fall into addiction, the mentality is ‘I have to fix this on my own. Yo have to keep this for myself. I can’t leave until gain.

“One of the principles of gambling addiction is chasing losses. “Add to that the warrior mentality and you basically have gambling addiction on steroids.”

Yeager’s addiction led to the breakup of his young family, the end of his military career, and five-figure debt. (“The only thing I didn’t do was borrow from my subordinates,” he says.)

After a decade-long tailspin that included a two-week stay in a civilian psychiatric hospital, Yeager remembers being handed a package for the VA’s gambling program in Cleveland by the perplexed counselor at his local VA. It was only after making that pilgrimage and communicating with veterans in his own trenches that Yeager changed his life. Now remarried, reconciled with his family and free of debt, he raises awareness about problem gambling in the military, touring the country and promoting a book about his recovery at the same time.

He hopes to be a light to service members. In some ways, as gambling becomes more ubiquitous and accessible, they are even more vulnerable to addiction. “Just having gambling in your pocket now changes everything,” says Chapman. “We won’t really know what the true impact will be until five or six years from now, when things really start to boil over.”

Some federal legislators have shown a willingness to cooperate in order to avoid disaster. In 2017, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Steve Daines introduced a bipartisan bill that would require the Department of Defense to track gaming disorders in its health screenings and develop policies and programs around treatment and prevention.

Earlier this year, Congresswoman Andrea Salinas partnered with Senator Richard Blumenthal on a bill that, among other things, would funnel half of federal taxes on gambling operators toward national research and treatment programs. But both measures have struggled to gain traction within a divided Congress.

Inaction only deepens the sense of fear within military establishments that are on the front lines of the gambling addiction problem, especially Yeager, who shuddered to think of the potential risks to national security if the problem of gambling in the army continues unchecked.

“I’m telling you right now: It’s only a matter of time before you start seeing stories about the major who lost his commission or the sergeant who committed treason because of his gambling addiction,” he says. “There is much more we must do. And that’s why I don’t keep quiet.”

  • In the US, call the National Council on Problem Gambling at 800-GAMBLER or text 800GAM. In the UK, help for problem gambling can be found through the NHS National Problem Gambling Clinic on 020 7381 7722, or GamCare on 0808 8020 133. In Australia, Gambling Help Online is available at 1800 858 858 and the National Debt Helpline is at 1800. 007 007.

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