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

In this June 23, 2021 photo, a row of slot machines sit empty at Bally's casino in Atlantic City N.J. / AP

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

The slot machines, operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, earn the DOD more than $100 million each year in the name of "morale, welfare, and recreation" for service members, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office that was written in response to demands from Congress.

Slots are often found on bases where there is precious little to do, like Diego Garcia – a 12-sq.-mile island in the Indian Ocean with a population of just over 4,000 people – where the Navy runs 52 slot machines. And they can be played by service members as young as 18 – individuals who wouldn't be allowed to enter most casinos in the U.S. before they turn 21.

Slots have had a contentious history in the military

In 1951, Congress banned slot machines from domestic military bases after passing legislation to that effect. Two decades later, the Army and Air Force removed them from all foreign bases as well, only to restore the foreign slot machines in the 1980s. The military's last accounting in 2017 showed that the machines are located on bases in 12 countries– mostly run by the Army.

The machines are managed by the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) groups of the respective military branches, which purport to "deliver high-quality, customer-focused programs and services that contribute to resiliency, retention, readiness and quality of life."

A Pentagon report in the early 2000s claimed that without the slot machines, the 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, telling NPR the machines "contribute significantly to the non-appropriated fund and many other recreation and entertainment overseas programs."

It's difficult to know the exact number of problem gamblers among service members since the military stopped screening for it more than a decade ago and has only resumed screening following the 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 deemed problem gamblers. A 2016 study on 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 consideration, the National Council on Problem Gambling conservatively estimates that 4% of military personnel meet the criteria for moderate to severe gambling problems – twice the national average.

"Everything we know about military personnel — that they tend to be young, male, risk-takers, likely to be suffering from higher rates of substance abuse, stress, depression, PTSD or traumatic brain injuries — is conclusively correlated with problem gambling," Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG, told NPR.

While deployed overseas, service members are often isolated, separated from friends and family and receive increased pay. For those seeking recreation on base, slot machines are often just a quick walk away.

Congress has tried to step in

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

But legislation introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., to curb this threat and provide aid to those struggling with gambling addiction never made it into law.

Some individual veterans, including those affected by gambling addiction, say they view the machines as a technique in what some in the military call "harm reduction" – the idea that gambling on base might keep someone from doing so off base, where the odds may be worse and the stakes may be higher.

"I spent hours in front of the slot machines on base and usually left plus or minus $50," Ed Grabowski, Navy veteran, told NPR. "I don't see where that is really going to create an issue. I could drop $50 in a pinball machine."

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

"From a gambling standpoint, there is no data to say that slot machines are a form of harm reduction," Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA's Gambling Studies program, told NPR.

Fong said he is focused on how these machines are regulated. "My concern is they're managed by the DOD – not by a public health institution or by groups that regulate gaming," he said.

Fong said he has met active duty military members who have developed gambling addictions in part 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 publicly obvious like other addictions.

The NCPG's Whyte agrees, noting that without some sort of realistic alert system or limit on gambling "the first signs of addiction are often other offenses like theft, fraud, going AWOL, [and] conduct disorders" – all offenses that could lead to a dishonorable discharge.

Often, by the time gambling addiction is discovered, it might be too late.

Aaron Walsh, an Army Apache pilot, lost $20,000 to the Army's slot machines in South Korea, resigned to avoid a court-marshal and ultimately committed suicide.

"I'm angry. That was a life lost needlessly due to the military's failure to take problem gambling seriously, and there are more of those stories," Whyte said.

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

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

Controls by themselves may not always be enough when access to slots are just steps away.

Army veteran Dave Yeagar says when he arrived at Yongsan Army Base South Korea right after Sept. 11, 2001, he didn't have a gambling problem. He says that even while living near Atlantic City, N.J., he was not tempted to play in the base's slots room like he was on base in South Korea.

"I found myself in there 7 days a week. ... The draw of those rooms and how easy it is to get to them is a lot of what led to my addiction developing," he told NPR, adding there was little oversight back then.

"There were literally days that I would go in there when the slot room opened on a 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 mentors active duty members with gambling addictions, says he hasn't heard that anything has changed.

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