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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Troops Using More Alcohol in War Zones

In May 2004, U.S. Specialist Justin Lillis got drunk on what he called "hajji juice," a clear Iraqi moonshine smuggled onto a U.S. Army base in Balad, Iraq, by civilian contractors, and began taking potshots with his M-16 service rifle.

"He shot up some contractor's rental car," said Phil Cave, a lawyer for Lillis, 24. "He hopped in a Humvee, drove around and shot up some more things. He shot into a housing area" and at soldiers guarding the base entrance.

Six months later, at an Army base near Baghdad, after a night of drinking an illegal stash of whiskey and gin, U.S. Specialist Chris Rolan pulled his 9 mm service pistol on another soldier and shot him dead.

And in March 2006, in perhaps the most gruesome crime committed by U.S. troops in Iraq, a group of soldiers stationed in Mahmudiya raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killed her and her family after drinking several cans of locally made whiskey supplied by Iraqi army soldiers, military prosecutors said.

Alcohol, strictly forbidden by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, is involved in a growing number of crimes committed by troops deployed to those countries. Alcohol- and drug-related charges were involved in more than one-third of all U.S. Army criminal prosecutions of soldiers in the two war zones -- 240 of the 665 cases resulting in convictions, according to records obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Seventy-three of those 240 cases involved some of the most serious crimes committed, including murder, rape, armed robbery and assault. Sex crimes accounted for 12 of the convictions.

The 240 cases involved a roughly equal number of drug and alcohol offenses, although alcohol-related crimes have increased each year since 2004.

Despite the military's ban on all alcoholic beverages -- and strict Islamic prohibitions against drinking and drug use -- liquor is cheap and ever easier to find for soldiers looking to self-medicate the effects of combat stress, depression or the frustrations of extended deployments, said military defense lawyers, commanders and doctors who treat soldiers' emotional problems.

"It's clear that we've got a lot of significant alcohol problems that are pervasive across the military," said Dr. Thomas Kosten, a psychiatrist at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston. He traces their drinking and drug use to the stress of working in a war zone. "The treatment that they take for it is the same treatment that they took after Vietnam," Kosten said. "They turn to alcohol and drugs."

The use of alcohol and drugs in war zones appears to reflect a broader trend toward heavier and more frequent drinking among all military personnel, but especially in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, the two services doing most of the fighting, Pentagon officials and military health experts said.

A Pentagon health study released in January, for instance, found that the rate of binge drinking in the U.S. Army shot up by 30 percent from 2002 to 2005, and "may signal an increasing pattern of heavy alcohol use in the Army."

The rate of illicit drug use also increased among military members in 2005, to an estimated 5 percent, nearly double the rate measured in 1998.