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0 Pinball Slot MachineSlot machines operated by the U.S. military. earns $100 million per year from overseas service members The U.S. military operates more than 3,000 slot machines on U.S. military bases. abroad even the rate of problem gamblers in the military is thought to be about twice that of the general. population.

In this June 23, 2021 photo, a row of slot machines are empty at Bally’s casino in Atlantic City N.J. Wayne Parry/AP hide caption

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In this June 23, 2021 photo, a row of slot machines are empty at Bally’s casino in Atlantic City N.J.

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The U.S. military operates more than 3,000 slot machines at American military bases overseas even though the rate of problem gamblers in the military is thought to be about twice that of the rest of the general population, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, an organization that promotes services to help people and families affected by problem gambling.

Slot machines, operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, earns the DOD more than $100 million a year in the name of “morale, welfare, and recreation” for service members, according to a Government Accountability Office report written in response to requests from Congress .

The slots are often found at bases where there is nothing important to do, such as Diego Garcia – a 12-sq.-mile island in the Indian Ocean with a population of just over 4,000 people – where the Navy operates of 52 slot machines. And they can be played by service members as young as 18 – individuals who wouldn’t be allowed into most U.S. casinos. before they turn 21.

In 1951, Congress banned slot machines from local military bases after passing legislation to that effect. Two decades later, the Army and Air Force also removed them from all foreign bases, only to bring back foreign slot machines in the 1980s. The last military accounting in 2017 showed that the machines were located at bases in 12 countries – mostly operated by the Army.

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The machines are managed by the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) groups of their respective military branches, which aim to “deliver high quality, customer-oriented programs and services that contribute to stability, sustainability , preparedness and quality of life.”

A Pentagon report in the early 2000s said that without the slot machines, MWR groups would not be able to afford other amenities for military members such as golf courses and family activity centers. . DOD spokeswoman Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman echoed that argument, saying the machines “significantly contribute to inappropriate funding and many other recreation and entertainment programs overseas.”

It’s hard to know the exact number of problem gamblers among service members because the military stopped screening for it more than a decade ago and only resumed screening following a 2017 GAO report. However, a 2008 study of 31,000 Air Force recruits found that 6.2% exhibited some of the necessary behaviors to be considered problem gamblers. A 2016 study of the experiences of returning veterans found that 4.2% were at-risk or problem gamblers after returning from deployment. Taking this and other studies into account, the National Council on Problem Gambling conservatively estimates that 4% of military personnel meet criteria for moderate to severe problem gambling – twice the national average.

“Everything we know about military personnel – that they tend to be young, male, risk-takers, tend to suffer higher rates of substance abuse, stress, depression, PTSD or traumatic injury in brain – is definitely associated with problem gambling,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG.

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While deployed overseas, service members are often isolated, separated from friends and family and receive higher pay. For those looking for base entertainment, slot machines are often just a quick walk away.

In 2018, lawmakers from both parties said they believed the number of problem gamblers in the military could pose a threat to national security, making service members vulnerable to blackmail and creating obstacles. on security clearances.

But the law introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., to stop this menace and provide help to those struggling with gambling addiction was never made into law.

Some individual veterans, including those affected by gambling addiction, say they view the machines as a method of what some in the military call “harm reduction” — the idea that gambling on base can be curbed. someone to do it outside, where the odds may be worse and the stakes may be higher.

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“I spent a lot of time in front of the slot machines on base and usually left plus or minus $50,” said Ed Grabowski, Navy veteran. “I don’t see where that would really create an issue. I could drop $50 on a pinball machine.”

But there are few — if any — studies that suggest service members are better off playing slots on base than gambling elsewhere.

“From a gambling perspective, there is no data to say that slot machines are a means of harm reduction,” said Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies program, .

Fong said he focused on how these machines are controlled. “My concern is that they are managed by DOD – not by a public health institution or by groups that regulate gaming,” he said.

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Fong said he has met active military members who developed gambling addictions because of easy access to slot machines on base. For Fong, one of the most dangerous aspects of gambling addictions is that they are not as obvious to the public as other addictions.

NCPG’s Whyte agreed, noting that without some sort of realistic alert system or limit on gambling “the first signs of addiction are often other offenses such as theft, fraud, going AWOL, [and] behavioral disorders” – all offenses that could lead to a dishonorable discharge.

Aaron Walsh, an Army Apache pilot, lost $20,000 on Army slot machines in South Korea, resigned to avoid court martial and ultimately committed suicide.

“I’m angry. That’s a life needlessly lost because of the military’s failure to take problem gambling seriously, and there are more of those stories,” Whyte said.

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The government has tried to take steps to address the issue, including through the Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates a program in Brecksville, Ohio, for veterans and active duty personnel struggling with problem gambling. Separately, the annual personal health assessment for all active military members includes three health screening questions aimed at identifying gambling addictions.

The Defense Department says it has “extensive controls in place to reduce potential abuse by limiting hours of operation, limiting access to machines, limiting the number of machines at locations , limiting the amount of money played and limiting potential winnings.”

Army veteran Dave Yeagar said when he arrived at Yongsan Army Base South Korea right after September 11, 2001, he didn’t have a gambling problem. He said that despite living near Atlantic City, N.J., he wasn’t tempted to play in the base’s slots room like he was at the base in South Korea.

“I found myself there 7 days a week. … The draw of those rooms and how accessible they were was more than what led to the development of my addiction,” he said, and added with some caution then. .

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“There were literally days I would go in there when the slot room opened on Saturday morning and leave when it closed. Nobody came up to me and said, ‘You’ve been here too long.’ Nobody. Nothing,” he said.

Yeager, who now coaches active duty members with gambling addictions, said he hasn’t heard that anything has changed.

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