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The Army is trying to get a handle on the problem of alcohol abuse. About 20 percent of personnel report drinking heavily. That is statistically similar to the civilian population. But a recent study by the Department of Defense found that binge drinking is increasing in the Army.

In response, the Army has been testing a new program that offers confidential treatment.

From member station KUOW, Patricia Murphy has the story.

PATRICIA MURPHY: Army research shows that many soldiers are reluctant to seek help on their own because it involves notifying unit command. And binge drinking among soldiers - defined as five or more drinks in a row - is often intertwined with mental health issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The results can be deadly: accidents, suicide and family violence. The Army's Confidential Alcohol Treatment Education Pilot, or CATEP, is designed to get soldiers into treatment before they have an alcohol-related incident.

MURPHY: Guy Gill is a Washington State District 1 trooper and Joint Base Lewis-McChord sits right in the middle of his patrol area.

Mr. GUY GILL (Washington State District 1 Trooper): If I had to say a specific incident where we have to contact the military a lot, a lot of those times is for DUIs, for drinking and driving.

MURPHY: It's Military Safety Day, and Trooper Gill is on his way to the base to brief troop members from the 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery regiment. Gill knows this is a tough crowd, so his presentation includes graphic images of vehicle wrecks and dead bodies.

Mr. GILL: If we can stop one of those guys from - this weekend - going out and getting in their car drunk and getting into a collision and killing himself or his buddy, we're doing good. That's what we want.

MURPHY: Soldiers face numerous consequences if they're arrested for DUI or flagged by a commanding officer for problem drinking. They can lose their rank or even be discharged.

Dr. JOLEE DARNELL: (Head of the Army Substance Abuse Program, Joint Base Lewis-McChord): They very much recognize that it's better for them to ask for help and be able to receive it than it is for them to not ask and end up in serious hot water.

MURPHY: That's Dr. Jolee Darnell, head of the Army Substance Abuse Program at Lewis-McChord. She says CATEP tends to attract older, higher-ranking soldiers and officers who've managed to stay under the radar, but who've finally decided to get help.

Dr. DARNELL: It works best for people who recognize that some things are not going right in their life and they need to do some things differently.

MURPHY: While confidentiality is at the heart of the program, weekly meetings and off-duty counseling appointments are what make CATEP different. Soldiers can also meet in civilian clothing, which allows them to keep their rank private. Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli has pushed for more innovative programs like CATEP.

General PETER CHIARELLI (Vice Chief of Staff of the Army): All the results that I've seen so far indicate to me that this is a very, very valuable program.

MURPHY: But Chiarelli says the unconventional nature of the program has also hindered Army-wide implementation.

Gen. CHIARELLI: I don't want to institute a program where somebody comes in and says, I'm having a problem with alcohol, and I look at him and say, come back in five weeks. That's the first available appointment I have.

MURPHY: The program's extended off-duty hours has strained counseling resources at JBLM, and critics are concerned about the lack of accountability and follow-up in a confidential program where command isn't involved. In fact, Darnell says during the 18-month pilot, 41 participants dropped out. Still, she says, CATEP shouldn't be viewed as a failure or as an endpoint.

Dr. DARNELL: The goal is to get people to change their behaviors in a way that will cease producing the problems that they're experiencing because of their habits.

MURPHY: Since the CATEP pilot program started at three military instillations in 2009, it's been expanded to six. There are currently 38 soldiers enrolled in the program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle.

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