Our Military Has a Gambling Problem
Air Force firefighter John Brownfield Jr. took a job as a correctional officer at the maximum security federal prison in Florence, Colo., 40 miles south of Colorado Springs. Ten months later, prison officials caught the ex senior airman smuggling tobacco to at least seven inmates at the facility and accepting at least $3,500 in payoffs. attorney for the District of Colorado charged the 22 year old combat veteran with bribery by a public official. Brownfield pleaded guilty.
Two years later, Sgt. Army received his honorable discharge, and went to work as a correctional officer at the medium security Federal Correctional Institution in Greenville, Ill., 50 miles east of St. Louis on Interstate 70. This past May, the Federal Bureau of Investigation confronted Perkins with evidence that he’d accepted at least $2,600 in payoffs for smuggling cigarettes into the prison. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois indicted the 23 year old decorated war veteran for bribery by a federal official, two counts of wire fraud, and two counts of making a false statement to a federal law officer. A presentencing report in the former soldier’s case noted “incidents of his alcohol abuse, excessive sexual activity, fighting in bars, and domestic violence.”Perkins was diagnosed with PTSD after he sought counseling at the VA St. Louis Healthcare System. A psychologist there diagnosed him with the disorder, but Perkins was already in a downward spiral he could not control, gambling the nights away at St. District Judge John L. Kane to take into account his client’s military service and his PTSD like symptoms. The federal prosecutor handling the case sought a prison term of one year and one day. District Judge Michael J. For afflicted servicemen who commit crimes post deployment, the prospect of getting paired with a sympathetic judge amounts to a roll of the dice.”Gambling, just like drugs, allows you to keep distress, depression, and anxiety at bay and remain in control of your own mind,” says Minneapolis VA Health Care System staff psychiatrist Dr. Joseph J. Westermeyer, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “So for veterans who are distraught maybe thinking they’re a coward because they lived and their comrades died they sometimes think gambling can save them.”In 2011 Westermeyer, who has studied add Skechers Canada iction for 40 years and served for a time as the Minneapolis VA’s director of mental health services, completed a VA funded study that delivered a jolt to his profession. He looked at the gambling behaviors of 2,185 vets who had sought treatment at least once in the prior two years, either at the Minneapolis VA or at the New Mexico VA Health Care System. At 26 he has the look of a broken man. His voice is soft and gravelly, his gaze distant. He’s wearing a fishing shop T shirt that smells like the cigarette he just smoked outside. “I knew what I was doing was wrong,” he says. “But gambling superseded the consequences.”Dreux Perkins (his first name is pronounced drew) graduated in Greenville (Ill.) High School’s class of ’04, an all conference linebacker who led the Comets football squad in tackles in his senior year. His first assignment sent him to Korea as a radio operator. When the young soldier made it clear that he wanted to be closer to the action, his leaders moved him to a VIP security detail, where he chauffeured top brass and other emissaries into and out of the Green Zone. His 13 man platoon managed a quartet of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected tanks, 40,000 pounds of bulletproof steel apiece. “Pretty soon [the tank] getting shot was, like, whatever,” Perkins says with a shrug.”Dreux Perkins was one of my finest junior NCOs. He served daily in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad,” attests Capt. Josh Lyons, at the time a second lieutenant who led the platoon. He says he and Perkins occupied the same personnel carrier for about six months, during which they made 151 trips along the Baghdad Airport Road, better known as Route Irish. “Dreux was a great soldier with unlimited potential in the enlisted ranks.”When he said he could handle more, Lyons moved him from driver to gunner. Perkins directed his tank from its turret, where he was able to swivel 360 degrees and fire at insurgents on sniper towers and bridges. Documents from his case indicate that he performed above and beyond. Several months into Perkins’ Baghdad tour, the army promoted him to E 5 sergeant. He’d already received several commendation and achievement medals. He’d absorbed painful shocks from roadside bombs; medical records indicate that on at least two occasions, IEDs (improvised explos Skechers Canada ive devices) knocked him unconscious. He took the lives of several attackers, and others returned the favor, killing a handful of his buddies over the course of his deployment. What began as a once a week diversion escalated to a nightly routine, fueled by the buzz of energy drinks combined with wagering limits that ballooned to $200 a round. Central Command had banned all forms of gambling in Iraq, and fraternizing with subordinates violates the government’s Uniform Code of Military Justice; Perkins knew full well he was breaking the rules, but as long as they kept it to themselves, no one cared. “All that garrison crap goes out the window once you’re in Iraq,” he explains. But mostly poker provided a much needed respite from the war’s psychological toll. Gambling with their money at night seemed a fair trade off for gambling with their lives by day.”It was almost like a high,” says Perkins. “That’s all we looked forward to. Even out on missions, it was all we talked about how we were going to play cards that night. It got to the point where sometimes we’d start at six and we wouldn’t be done until three in the morning.”Heather A. Chapman, deputy director of the Veterans Addiction Recovery Center at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, doesn’t have enough room to treat all the veterans who seek refuge in her gambling treatment program. Chapman ticks off a few of the more memorable case studies: the vet who blew $80,000 at a casino in a single day. The vet who gambled away so much in a month that he lost 17 pounds because he had no money to buy food. Yet research and anecdotal evidence alike suggest the problem is widespread and growing. In addition to Westermeyer’s study (slated for publication in an upcoming edition of The American Journal on Addictions): A 2008 study involving a cohort of 31,000 active duty airmen showed that 1.9 percent had no control over their gambling and 10.4 percent gambled weekly at minimum. One is the roller coaster like thrill of winning (or losing) when the stakes are high, which mimics the adrenaline rush that occurs in the heat of battle. Gambling provides a nonlethal escape and why save today when you could die tomorrow?The second reason involves escape of another sort: For some veterans who return from combat with deeper psychological wounds, gambling functions much like a narcotic. Rather than seek out crowded poker tables, these vets tend to zone out in front of slot machines, whose hypnotic whirls and hallucinatory lights, whoops, and sirens provide a numbing electronic morphine. Chapman estimates that 35 percent to 40 percent of her patients have PTSD; for many, she surmises, slot machines “are like wonder anesthetic.”Research aside, common sense suggests that gambling and the armed forces are a combustible combination. Those who enlist tend to be risk takers to begin with. And because military culture has little tolerance for behavioral problems, there’s less motivation to seek counseling. Pathological gambling has long been correlated with elevated rates of trauma, depression, and substance abuse all of which affect veterans at high rates. (And it’s safe to say the war movie poker game is a cinematic clich rivaled only in the jailhouse genre.)Duane A. Kees, an Arkansas based military lawyer, says he deals with two or three gambling cases a year. “You see it over and over with combat vets,” he says. “The Skechers Canada y get caught for stealing or selling military property to support their addiction. They get charged with theft or fraud but gambling is their underlying rationale.”Still, some researchers dismiss the oft cited claim that the overall incidence of pathological gambling in the n Skechers Canada ation’s adult population as a whole is roughly half the rate found among military vets. If the reclassification goes through as gambling researchers expect it will pathological gambling will become the first behavioral disorder to be classified as an addiction. Gamblers and researchers alike refer to it as “the hidden addiction”: There’s no pee test, and you can’t smell dice (or deuces) on someone’s breath. Says Chapman: “Some vets come to me saying they wish they had a substance addiction because you pass out after too much of it. With gambling you can’t pass out.”Keith S. “We think the evidence is pretty clear that gambling addiction is underdiagnosed and undertreated among vets,” says Whyte, who believes every veteran who checks into the VA for a mental health problem should be screened for gambling addiction. “The VA might say they don’t have many patients who present for gambling problems. Shah conducted the bulk of her research through the Washington University School of Medicine and the St. population at large, women who are pathological gamblers are outnumbered by men two to one. “And it’s important that we say to the government: ‘Hey, open your eyes.'”When Dreux Perkins returned home, he tried not to think about the war. He began drinking close to a fifth of Jim Beam at night and having nightmares about the killings. He also continued to gamble, playing Texas hold ’em at Lumire Place Casino in downtown St. Louis. “He was a total flip flop,” says Derrick, recounting the lies about the dwindling bank account and time spent away from home. “He’d say he was going out with friends or helping someone move, but he was going to the casino.”Says Perkins: “She didn’t know what the hell was going on with me. People told me I was just numb and didn’t really care about anything. The following week he checked into the St. “The veteran became highly anxious and tearful when attempting to recount the event(s) and chose to limit his recounting to the sight of dead bodies (particularly close friends and innocent [Iraqis]),” reads a report his psychologist filed. “The veteran reported that he has nightmares about ‘the dead bodies’ approximately ‘every night’ and that he awakens in a highly anxious state with his ‘heart pounding.'”During that session, Perkins described an incident in which a rock hit his windshield; mistaking it for a bullet, he momentarily lost control of his car. But the sergeant failed to follow up much at the VA that year. Instead, he continued gambling. In a two month span, Perkins says, he blew through $15,000, maxing out his credit card. Unable to scrape together enough for his monthly car payment, he began selling off personal belongings. He fell into arrears on his mortgage. The court record contains no reference to Alama’s role as an informant, but a source close to the investigation, who spoke on condition that his name not be revealed, confirms Perkins’ account, including the false allegation regarding illegal drugs. On the verge of losing his home and car, Perkins took him up on it. This time, rather than working through Alama’s brother, Perkins consented to collect the money and cigarettes from a woman later cited in court documents as “Liz.”When Perkins entered the Saint Louis Bread Co. on Loughborough Avenue on May 12 of last year, he sensed someone was watching him. She produced a plastic bag containing a carton of cigarettes, two loose packs, and an envelope containing $2,000 in cash. “You could see right through the bag,” Perkins recalls. “In my head, I’m like, ‘This is a setup.’ But I wasn’t thinking straight.”Perkins took the money and drove straight to the Argosy. It took him two hours to blow through the entire two grand. Two days later he arrived at work with 60 cigarettes secured inside two zip lock bags: one in a jacket pocket, the other stuffed down his pants. The agents produced a warrant, searched him, and discovered the contraband. After presenting him with photographs from the Bread Co., the agents asked Perkins where he’d gone after meeting Liz. Perkins said he drove home. The agents produced photos from the Argosy. Faced with evidence he knew to be genuine, Perkins signed a confession on the spot. He checked into the VA’s emergency room, reporting that he was “stressed out drinking and gambling.” He remained in the psychiatric ward for two days. Two weeks later he began to receive gambling counseling, which helped. Weinhoeft acknowledged Perkins’ military valor and his PTSD. But as a correctional officer, he argued, the defendant was well aware he was committing a crime. attorney told the judge. “He’s thrown away his career. He has significantly damaged the institution that he worked for. He’s compromised the integrity of the profession that he was involved with.”Speaking on Perkins’ behalf, defense attorney Daniel F. Goggin zeroed in on his client’s combat induced transformation. “[Y]ou take these kids in at a young age to send them to battle. They were in that situation thinking ‘I’m going to die any second’ for a couple years. So they just start doing classical behavior. They beat their partners, start drinking, they start gambling. Mr. “I just want to, first and foremost, say just apologize to my family for putting them through all this. And just really ashamed of myself, my actions for the person I am today, just completely different from the person I used to be, and I just want to get the help that I need so I can be the person I was. That’s all.”Before issuing his ruling, Judge Reagan commended Perkins on his military service and acknowledged his PTSD and gambling addiction. But smuggling contraband into prison, be it tobacco or illegal drugs, is serious business, the judge declared.”Anything that upsets the delicate balance of power between the guards and the inmates or the inmates and other inmates can turn calm into chaos,” Reagan said before sentencing Perkins to 30 months. He chose the low end of the recommended range, the judge explained, in light of Perkins’ military service. The vet court concept is analogous to drug court, offering defendants a second chance by reducing prison terms or bypassing convictions altogether if the accused agrees to participate in individualized, VA run treatment programs and check in regularly with the court. “The idea is starting to percolate,” says Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner of the District of Utah, who instituted the nation’s first federal vet court in 2010. Warner spent six years in the Navy before joining the Army National Guard’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, retiring as a colonel. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. quietly opened a federal vet court this past October in Cape Girardeau. (Prior to his appointment to the federal bench in 2008, Limbaugh had served on the Missouri Supreme Court; his cousin, radio raconteur Rush, is somewhat less apt at flying under the radar.)Coincidentally, the fifth federal level vet court might take root in the Southern District of Illinois, raising the possibility that Dreux Perkins can add a bad timing card to his hand of misfortunes. Since opening a vet court in Madison County in 2009, Circuit Judge Charles Romani Jr. has graduated 35 defendants, only one of whom has reoffended. Attorney Stephen R. Wigginton sometime in the next few months.”We’re trying to stay ahead of the game,” Fischer says. “This would be a measure to help out these veterans by filling the gap until the government wants to implement vet courts at the federal level.”Meanwhile, civilian offenders suffering from gambling addictions might soon have their day in diversion court. already has one gambling court. Though he hopes other judges follow his lead, he doubts many legislators will rally to the cause anytime soon.”The government is facing a budgetary shortfall as is,” notes Farrell, adding that casino taxes are a major source of tax revenue. “This is a subjective opinion on my part, but who’s the biggest partner for gaming? Government.”Casino taxes aren’t the only source of gambling related government revenue. Army says its Recreation Machine Program operates 2,189 electronic gaming machines on overseas Army, Navy, and Marine bases outside combat zones worldwide. In 1951, following passage of the federal Transportation of Gambling Devices Act, the military removed machines from stateside bases. After leaving the military, Walsh wound up homeless in Las Vegas. Rep. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee proposed the “Warrant Officer Aaron Walsh Stop DoD Sponsored Gambling Act,” calling for a ban on military slot machines. “We’ve got research to show that 30,000 of our troops may be pathological gamblers, and we ought to be ashamed that we’re adding to that,” Davis told Stars and Stripes in 2008. Judge Reagan stayed Perkins’ sentencing one week so he could be at Gehrig’s bedside. On February 22, Perkins drove with his father to Talladega, Ala., to begin serving his felony sentence.