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Military researchers are studying ways to reduce substance abuse among service members, their families and veterans, a Defense Department official said this week. “We’re doing a great job with those physical wounds,” said Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, Deputy Director for Force Health Protection and Readiness Programs. The military now wants to focus on the invisible wounds of war, he added.

Every service member undergoes a health assessment after deployment to detect mental health and substance abuse problems, followed by annual assessments, Dr. Kilpatrick said. The Army conducts health assessments in the combat theater each year, the Air Force News Service reports. All of these assessments include questions about alcohol and tobacco use. “We find a very high rate of people who respond that they think they’re having trouble with alcohol,” Dr. Kilpatrick noted.

A report issued by the Institute of Medicine last fall concluded substance abuse among members of the U.S. military and their families has become a public health crisis. The Defense Department’s approaches to preventing and treating substance abuse are outdated, the report stated.

The Defense Department requested the report, which found about 20 percent of active duty service members say they engaged in heavy drinking in 2008, the latest year for which data was available. Binge drinking increased from 35 percent in 1998, to 47 percent a decade later.

The report also found the rate of prescription drug abuse is on the rise. In 2002, an estimated 2 percent of active-duty personnel said they misused prescription drugs, compared with 11 percent in 2008.

The Institute of Medicine recommended integrating prevention and treatment efforts more into primary health care, to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for substance abuse. The military also should do more to preserve the confidentiality of those seeking assistance, the report noted.

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