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Fort Meade reluctant to promote gambling

Maryland's largest and most lucrative casino threw an Independence Day party this month for one of its biggest neighbors: Fort Meade, the massive Army base just five miles down the road.

In many ways, it was the archetypal Fourth of July civic event — one of the area's largest employers showing gratitude to the men and women who serve the county. A celebrity chef manned the grill at the USO on base, and the casino's top executives mingled with the troops.

But courting military members can be tricky business for the gambling industry, because service members have a much higher rate of problem gambling than the general population does.

Hours after the Maryland Live casino publicly advertised the party, Fort Meade restricted public access and made it a private party — one that wouldn't have news cameras snapping photos of service members in uniform near the large, spinning casino wheel planned for the affair.

"It's not that we don't like Maryland Live," said Mary Doyle, chief of public affairs at Fort Meade. "It sort of promotes gambling, and that's not something we do."

Rob Norton, the president and general manager of Maryland Live, said the casino "takes great pride in our role as a leading corporate partner and community steward."

"We're committed to supporting worthwhile nonprofits and organizations, including the USO and their mission to lift the spirits of America's troops and their families," Norton said in a statement. "Our partnership has afforded us several opportunities to get involved and honor those who honor us with their service."

Norton said the casino takes its "role in responsible gaming very seriously."

"It's a concern to us if anybody exhibits signs of problem gaming," he said. "Therefore, every member of our staff is trained to recognize problem gambling and how to offer assistance."

Norton said the casino continuously reviews the policies and procedures set forth by the Maryland State Lottery to ensure it is in compliance with state regulations, as well as with its own policies.

The military has had a long history with gambling in combat zones and card games on bases. But only in recent decades have researchers dug into the rates of gambling addiction within the military.

They have found some startling statistics.

While studies vary, the majority show that veterans are two to three times more likely than the general population to develop a gambling addiction, said Lori Rugle, program director at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center on Problem Gambling.

A 2011 study backed by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs of nearly 2,000 veterans in Minnesota and New Mexico found that rates of problem gambling and pathological gambling among veterans were two to four times higher than those for the general population.

There are many reasons for the higher gambling rates. Rugle said risk factors include post-traumatic stress, the age of service members, the cycle between high-adrenaline deployment and downtime, and the competitive atmosphere within the military.

The VA has one residential gambling addiction center in the country, in Cleveland. Rugle is one its past directors.

"There's no real organized, consistent effort to address this issue in the veteran community," she said. "There are pockets of interest, but it's certainly not a top-down intervention."

The Department of Defense has launched other top-down initiatives to deal with problems that affect service members disproportionately. It started a suicide prevention and awareness program in 2011, for example, after studies showed veterans returning from overseas were significantly more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

In her work at Maryland's problem gambling center, Rugle has fielded calls from individuals who want to pitch to the Pentagon programs that could spot problem gambling warning signs and intervene.

But for the most part, Rugle said, individuals are left to seek help for problem gambling on their own.

At Fort Meade, Doyle said the base's decision to make the Maryland Live party a private event was unrelated to research about the prevalence of gambling among service members.

She said it was no different from any workplace making choices about how it portrays itself to its community.

"Just like any business, gambling is just not something we promote," she said. "We're just not comfortable with promoting Maryland Live, not that we don't appreciate them as a community member and as a neighbor."

Michelle Shortencarrier, a spokeswoman for the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore, said the organization worked with the casino to develop the event. She said Fort Meade has the authority to decide whether outside people can attend.

ecox@baltsun.com

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