CLEVELAND — Gambling is about twice as likely in the veteran population than the general population, according to a top expert at the Cleveland VA Medical Center. One veteran - who received help at the facility - created a podcast to connect with and support others.
"I'm an 11-year veteran of the Army who actually fell into my gambling addiction while I was on active duty, in the Republic of Korea right after 9/11," podcaster, counselor and father Dave Yeager said.
Things were tense right after the terror attacks, and he said he was having arguments with his wife. One night, he couldn't sleep. To keep busy, he visited the casino-style slot room on the base.
"The next thing I realized, all the stress I was under - all of the fear I was having, just melted," he said. "I immediately knew I wanted more."
The addiction took hold. He found himself in the hospital, fearing he would harm himself and lose his family.
"It actually got me kicked out of the Army and then post-Army to the point where I needed to seek help," he said.
He found the Cleveland VA - once in 2007 and again in 2020, when he said he relapsed.
"It was an intensive psychotherapy five-week program and I left there with a much better understanding of myself, better understanding of gambling addiction and a much better understanding of how to keep myself in recovery," he said. "Once they started to get to the deeper issue that was underneath the manifestation of the addiction itself, then the addiction itself becomes less of the beast."
In the early 1970s, the Cleveland VA became the first to develop a problem gambling treatment program in the world. The director of the program is Dr. Heather Chapman.
"It actually started when a few guys from the gamblers anonymous program came to the head of the hospital and said, 'You need to help us. We have people coming to the program and we don't know what to do because they're very desperate. They're in debt, they're considering suicide, they're considering an illegal activity, their marriages are falling apart,'" Dr. Chapman said. "So he took a chance and said let's take a look at this. And because of that program and because of his work ... it started this field even before it was a recognized diagnosis."
Dr. Chapman said veterans face somewhat of a perfect storm.
"One of the difficulties of the military right now is there is on overseas bases very easily accessible gambling, so you're giving new military members access to gambling at a young age and so it primes them early," she said. "Veterans organizations like VFWs do have gambling readily available right in their building, and so I think those fraternal organizations continue to create or be there when people felt the need to create a connection."
Dr. Chapman said the warning signs of gambling addiction can be challenging to spot, unlike some other addictions.
"Sometimes people think there's an affair going on or something else happening," she said. "Gambling is unfortunately very easy to hide."
But the tell-tale sign might not be surprising.
"The biggest is money ... money is missing, money problems despite adequate income," she said. "Having difficulty keeping up with school or work and just generally keeping up with life. Definitely the biggest difference between other addictions and gambling is significant financial issues. It's unfortunately something that care provider and I think us as a population we don't talk about money and we don't want to have those discussions about money. Frequently we'll find people who have gambling issues are in charge of money in the household. People even very close to them frequently no idea this was happening because the finances were run by that person who has the gambling problem."
Legalized sports betting also poses concern for experts like Dr. Chapman.
"Ohio is still trying to figure that out - the sports betting piece - but we're surrounded by sports betting states so you literally just have to just cross over the state line and say go to West Virginia, Michigan or Pennsylvania and you'll be able to make a bet in some places just on your cell phone," she said.
Dr. Chapman said a key part of recovery is for those struggling to connect with those who've been through it - a topic she spoke about on Yeager's podcast.
"Dave worked with us - in one way getting grounded in his own recovery and then has been working with other people, giving back. He's been a real strong advocate working with us," she said.
But Yeager’s efforts extend far beyond the microphone.
"He's even become a gambling counselor, he's gotten certifications, he's on the road to becoming a certified social worker - a Master's degree in social work - he really wants to work in the field, so it's a lovely thing," she said. "The help that somebody like he can give is beyond anything that I could do because he's walked in those shoes. I think it's the combination of that plus the science that I can help deliver that is the perfect combination."
For Yeager, it's not just about helping others; it's about helping himself.
"The more I pay it forward, the more I stay strong in my own recovery because it's the more I stay connected with how important this really is," he said.
You can listen to the podcast here.
For more information about problem gambling and how to help someone you love, you can visit beforeyoubet.org or the Ohio Problem Betting Helpline at 1-800-589-9966. Also, veterans can call the Veterans' Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.