U.S. Agency Recommends Problem Gambling Screening during Military Recruitment

U.S. Agency Recommends Problem Gambling Screening during Military Recruitment
The isolation and boredom of some military assignments make gambling an inevitability.

The Government Accountability Office released a report this week suggesting that the U.S. Armed Services should screen for gambling disorder when hiring new personnel. The military screens for “addictive disorders“, according to Brock Vergakis of the Virginia-Pilot.

The GOA report estimated that 0.03% of all service members deal with problem gambling. The numbers were culled from statistics compiled by the Military Health System between 2011 to 2015.

Pentagon Ill-Equipped to Treat Gambling Addiction

The report suggested that, once personnel are in the military, the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security are not necessarily good at identifying and treating gambling addiction. In that case, it is best to screen for gambling addiction before people are in the system.

In the general population, diagnosis of gambling disorder is difficult. The American Psychiatric Association estimates only 10% of people with gambling disorder ever seek treatment for their condition. Most hide their level of addiction, while hiding from their families how much they have lost gambling.

Government Accountability Office’s Findings

According to the Government Accountability Office report, “While gambling disorder is not a frequently diagnosed condition, the preoccupation with gambling, financial hardship, and increased risk of suicide can pose a risk to individual readiness.

Defense Department’s Response

The Defense Department did not agree with the accountability office’s research. The Pentagon said it plans to update its policy in order to promote gambling addiction awareness and education in order to prevent problem gambling or reducing its effects. The Defense Department does not see the value in screening, though.

In a statement released by the Pentagon, “There is no evidence to suggest that gambling disorder is a high prevalence disorder in the DoD, and it is impractical to screen for every low prevalence disorder.

Comparisons to Psychiatric Disorders

In the thinking of the US’s military leaders, psychiatric disorders do not receive screenings. Bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and psychotic disorders are as common or even more common than gambling addiction, but the military does not screen for those conditions.

To screen for such conditions would require additional time and resources. Training and treatment also would burden the health providers and the service members themselves. Recruitment, which is a perennial issue, also would become more of a problem.

Priority to High-Risk, High-Volume Issues

The military leadership said it had considered the Government Accountability Office’s recommendations seriously, but gambling addiction is not ranked as dangerous as the aforementioned disorders. Compared to manic depression or psychosis, the depredations of compulsive gambling seem minor in comparison to the military.

The Pentagon’s statement continue, “The decision on whether to screen for a disorder is carefully scrutinized with the DoD, with the priority given to high risk, high volume, and problem-prone disorders with validated measures for assessment.

Gambling in the Military

The U.S. military has a long relationship with gambling. In World War II, craps was a prevelent, because all that was needed was dice (and cash). That led to an early form of dice control called the “army blanket roll”. In this reputed technique, soldiers would roll the dice on their sleeping blanket, then use minute manipulations of the blanket to change the dice roll after the fact.

Former US President Richard Nixon is said to have funded his college education from his poker winnings during his war service. According to biographer Evan Thomas, when Nixon learned about a local poker game, he asked a friend the trick to winning. That friend told him the trick was playing only good hands (one out of four or five hands), but said that was boring. Being the grinder he was, Richard Nixon used that simple strategy to make a killing at the poker tables.

Gambling had been a part of military camp life long before the Second World War, though. The Smithsonian Archives has extant copies of orders from Gen. George Washington trying to curtail gambling in his army’s camps during the Revolutionary War. There are letters of British commanders in the same war seeking to prevent gambling. The boredom of army life (“hurry up and wait”) makes gambling inevitable in such a setting.

Specific Risks of Military Gambling Addiction

One unspoken reason the Government Accountability Office might be targeting gambling addiction is the risk it puts soldiers, and especially officers, to bribery and corruption.

If military personnel has the financial instability associated with problem gambling, that leaves them open to bribery by foreign agents. One (now-retired) U.S. general who was in charge of the American nuclear infrastructure had a gambling addiction which could have left the United States nuclear arsenal compromised, if foreign countries had known about his plight.

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