The U.S. military is notorious for having its hand in many different pots, but gaming is not usually considered to be one of them. However, a new report from National Public Radio (NPR) has shown that the Department of Defense (DOD) operates upwards of 3,000 slots on overseas bases, which generate revenues in excess of $100 million per year.
Those figures came from a report submitted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2017, which was initially requested by Congress. According to the report, the machines are offered to service members as a way to provide “morale, welfare, and recreation” (MWR).
Per NPR, the machines are accessible to all service members, even those under the age of 21. In addition, the most remote bases often feature larger numbers of machines—for example, the Navy operates 52 machines on Diego Garcia, a speck of land in the Indian Ocean with a population under 5,000.
Slots were removed from domestic bases in 1951, and international bases followed suit in the early 1970s. However, they were brought back just a decade later, and as of 2017, the DOD reported that it owned machines on bases across a minimum of 12 countries.
An early 2000s Pentagon report outlined the fact that the machines are part of the MWR departments of each branch, and without the revenue generated by them, there wouldn’t be enough funds for other amenities such as family centers and golf courses. A DOD spokeswoman told NPR that the slots “contribute significantly” to “many other recreation and entertainment overseas programs.”
It should come as no surprise that the data on problem gaming in the military is sparse at best, but the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) recently estimated that 4 percent of all service members meet the criteria to be considered moderate or severe problem gamblers, which is double the national average. The military had stopped screening for such behavior years ago, and only brought it back after the 2017 report from the GAO.
NCPG Executive Director Keith Whyte told NPR that certain characteristics of military personnel, most notably those who are “young, male, risk-takers,” make them much more likely to develop problem gambling habits if presented with such opportunities.
On the other hand, the general indication from higher-ups and service members is that the machines actually serve as a form of harm reduction, in the sense that they keep personnel on base, away from the possibility of getting in bigger trouble elsewhere, especially in foreign countries.
In 2018, a number of lawmakers shed light on the issue, citing national security concerns—a bipartisan bill that would have reduced the number of machines and increased funds for problem gambling services was presented by Sens. Steve Daines (R-Montana), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), but eventually fizzled out.
As far as current resources, the Department of Veterans Affairs does run a dedicated problem gambling program in Ohio, which serves both veterans and active duty service members. Additionally, the annual health screening for all personnel now includes specific questions aimed at identifying problem behavior.
The DOD told NPR that it has “extensive controls in place” to limit potential harm, including “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.”