Combat veterans fall prey to gambling addictions at an alarming rate — where's the military when the chips are down?

In 2007, having served with distinction during two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, U.S. Air Force firefighter John Brownfield Jr. took a job as a correctional officer at the maximum-security federal prison in Florence, Colorado, 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. The U.S. 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, Sergeant Dreux Perkins returned home from a combat stint in Baghdad — his second overseas tour of duty with the U.S. Army — received his honorable discharge and went to work as a correctional officer at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Greenville, Illinois, 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. The U.S. 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. Perkins pleaded guilty.

The two soldiers have never met, but the similarities between them go deeper than their parallel career-to-crime trajectories.

Though he had not been formally diagnosed, Brownfield manifested symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. A pre-sentencing 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. Louis-area casinos and, as his losses mounted to the point where he couldn't pay the mortgage on the home he'd bought, smuggling cigarettes into the prison in return for cash.

In the federal court system, the fates of the two young soldiers diverged.

Prior to sentencing, Brownfield's attorney asked Senior U.S. 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. Kane ignored the sentencing guidelines and sentenced Brownfield to five years' probation.

"Figuratively speaking, Brownfield returned from the war, but never really came home," Kane wrote in a detailed 30-page sentencing memorandum, adding: "We are now, in a manner of speaking, charting unknown waters."

Perkins' lawyer also asked for leniency, citing his client's PTSD, pathological gambling addiction and a letter from his psychologist recommending treatment in a VA-operated residential program.

U.S. District Judge Michael J. Reagan sentenced Perkins to two and a half years in federal prison.

While officials in federal courts have gained an increased understanding of combat-related PTSD in recent years, a seemingly related mental illness — pathological gambling — remains largely overlooked, despite a growing body of scientific research suggesting that gambling addictions are alarmingly common among servicemen returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. 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 addiction 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 sought treatment at least once in the prior two years, either at the Minneapolis VA or at the New Mexico VA Health Care System. He found that 2 percent had a pathological gambling addiction and another 8 percent had a gambling problem — statistics that are double the rates commonly found in surveys of civilian populations.

The data portend a greater problem in the future, judging by the shockingly high number of younger veterans who exhibited so-called problem gambling — often a precursor to (and thus a major predictor of) pathological gambling.

On February 8, with a week of freedom between him and the scheduled onset of his prison term, Perkins nurses a Bud Light at a sparsely populated sports-themed restaurant just off Interstate 70 in Troy, Illinois. 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 caught outside. The 180-pound soldier who manned an armored personnel vehicle in Iraq is now a saggy-gutted convict-to-be, having packed on 45 new ones.

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John H. Tucker
Contact: John H. Tucker