Drug Addiction in the Military

drug addiction in the military

Military personnel have their own subculture and as such are subject to different stressors and issues than those of your average civilian. Combat and wartime deployment are a few of these stressors that may lead active duty and military veterans to seek unhealthy coping methods like drugs and alcohol. The stigmas and zero-tolerance policies that exist also may deter them from seeking the help they need.

This same zero-tolerance policy may act as a deterrent for illicit drug use among active duty military, as only 2.3 percent of the population used an illicit drug in the last month as opposed to 12 percent of civilians.[1]

Prescription drug abuse is, however, much higher in military personnel than the civilian population, most likely due to the rise in the availability and prescriptions of these medications for combat-related injuries and strain from heavy lifting. Alcohol abuse and binge drinking are also much higher in the military population, with nearly half of active duty service members admitting to binge drinking episodes.[2] Combat exposure and wartime situations seem to only increase these statistics.

Higher Addiction Rates Among Some Drugs

alcohol prescriptions use military

Prescription drug and alcohol abuse is more prevalent in the military.

History of Military Drug Addiction
soldier's disease

The United States military is no stranger to substance abuse; in fact, it runs rampant throughout our history. One of the bloodiest wars in American history was that of the Civil War (1861-1865). More than one million Americans were killed and countless others were injured or developed debilitating diseases.

With the advent of the syringe in 1853, the seemingly perfect solution to intense pain and suffering on the front lines was the newly minted opioid pain reliever, morphine. Doctors were injecting it frequently, not realizing its high potential for addiction. Soldiers were addicted to morphine for decades after the war, the addiction being termed “Soldier’s Disease.”[3]World War I (1914-1919), came with the advent of instant coffee and pre-rolled cigarettes for instant gratification to assuage the caffeine and nicotine addiction sweeping the military ranks. With the abolition of prohibition, alcohol was one of the drugs of choice for servicemen in World War II (1939-1945). It was available on army bases and even handed out with military rations. Another drug that reared its head in WWII was the stimulant methamphetamine. It was given to pilots and tank drivers to keep them focused and awake during combat. Many alcoholics and meth addicts came home from this war, although exact statistics are difficult to come by.

The demoralizing and controversial Vietnam War (1959-1975) brought its own set of problems and struggles for the American soldier. The war dragged on, and soldiers became restless and miserable and looked to self-medicate. The drug culture in the United States was exploding with drugs like marijuana, psychedelics and amphetamines gaining popularity.[4] Bored soldiers were turning toward marijuana much like their peers back home in the states.

The social stigmas against illicit drug use were waning, and in Vietnam, heroin moved to the forefront. Apparently South Vietnamese officials were selling it, making it readily accessible and inexpensive. It is estimated that half of the military population in Vietnam tried opium or heroin during their tour and one-fifth of them came home addicted.[5]

Vietnam War Addiction Rates Among Military
Military War Drug Use Historical Timeline
Drug Use in the Military

Historical drug use in the military timeline:

  • Civil War (1861-1865): morphine
  • World War I (1914-1919): caffeine and nicotine
  • World War II (1939-1945): methamphetamines and alcohol
  • Vietnam War (1959-1975): heroin and marijuana

Drugs in Today’s Military

Illicit drug use is a punishable offense in today’s military, leading to discharge and sometimes criminal charges. It is thought that because of these harsh consequences and random drug tests, active duty military personnel typically stay away from these drugs. That being said, however, soldiers are not immune to the allure of these drugs.

In 2010 and 2011, 56 soldiers in Afghanistan were investigated for the suspected distribution or use of opiates, including heroin and morphine, and during that same time, eight soldiers died from drug overdose.[6] Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium, making temptation difficult to overcome in such a stressful environment.[7]

As previously mentioned, alcohol and prescription painkillers are much more common in today’s military ranks than any other drug. A survey of soldiers deployed to Iraq indicated that 12 to 15 percent tested positive for alcohol problems.[8] Soldiers on active duty cite boredom, along with depression, anxiety, and an attempt to self-medicate or cope with the stress as reasons for drinking heavily. Similarly, with 3.8 million service members being prescribed pain medication, it is no surprise that so many military personnel have become dependent and turn towards abusing these opioid narcotics.[9]

Deployed In Iraq Rate Alcoholism.

Veterans and Drug Usage

Military personnel have a high risk of turning to substance abuse after leaving the military and combat as well. A general at Ft. Drum in New York estimated that 20 percent of combat veterans turned to drugs or heavy drinking upon their return.[10] These soldiers are trained to be tough and may have a hard time coping with psychological pain, making drugs and alcohol seem like an appealing outlet. Even more disturbing is that most of these veterans will go untreated, with less than one-tenth of those reporting problems with alcohol even being referred for treatment.[11]

One thought as to why this occurs is that veterans have to cope with more stress than the average person and turning to drugs or alcohol can help to soothe these raw emotions. War can be very traumatic, and coming home and settling into a completely different life can also be difficult. Adjusting to life outside the military can be tough for veterans as well. Along with addiction, veterans also can develop mental health disorders that make reentry even more daunting.

PTSD and Drug Abuse

One such mental health disorder is PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which is brought on by stressful events or trauma and often the overwhelming aftereffects of combat situations. Another issue combat soldiers run into is traumatic brain injury (TBI). This occurs when someone receives a jolt or blow to the head that impairs normal brain function, and this can happen when soldiers are near explosions. Many who suffer from PTSD also suffer from TBI.

A large percentage of military veterans suffer from PTSD. According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, the numbers of those reported for treatment are as high as[12]:

  • 31 percent of Vietnam veterans
  • 20 percent of Iraq war veterans
  • 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans
  • 10 percent of Gulf War veterans

These numbers may actually be higher as incidents of PTSD can sometimes be hard to quantify and many who have the disorder do not seek treatment.

PTSD, TBI, and addiction often go hand in hand as suffering veterans look for ways to cope with the emotional turmoil. In addition, sufferers of PTSD are twice as likely to receive an opioid pain reliever prescription than those not suffering from PTSD.[13] Veterans often suffer from physical pain from injuries and opioid painkillers are highly addictive, putting those also suffering from a mental health disorder at further risk for addiction.

Additionally, 60 to 80 percent of veterans from the Vietnam War suffering from PTSD also have an alcohol use disorder.[14] Substance abuse can make the treatment of PTSD much harder and can actually worsen the symptoms.

Perhaps these two disorders are so often seen together in veterans because they come from the same root cause. PTSD stems from trauma and often substance abuse is seen as a way to self-medicate which can lead to addiction. Numbing the pain and drowning your sorrows seem so much more appealing than seeking help to combat these inner demons who hitched a ride back from war in a veteran’s psyche.

PTSD in the Military

Help Is Available

Alcohol and drugs are often used as a temporary salve for both military veterans and active duty soldiers alike. Unfortunately, these episodes of binge drinking or drug use can easily turn to dependence and addiction.

Veterans who also suffer from PTSD run the even higher risk of seeking a permanent solution to their pain and suffering. Up to 22 veterans commit suicide daily, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.[15]

So many of our military personnel and veterans need help for substance abuse and do not seek treatment. Obviously, the consequences can be devastating. Mental health treatment and therapy are often seen as a sign of weakness, and this is only one of the social stigmas these men and women face on a daily basis. Not only is getting help imperative, it could be life-saving.

It is not only military personnel who suffer from the pain of addiction, but also their families. Veterans and soldiers come home and feel alone even when surrounded by loved ones. Family members are unsure how to react or help. At times, their loved one seems to be a different person altogether than the one they remembered before deployment.

Here at The Oaks at La Paloma, we are sensitive to the specific needs of military members. PTSD and addiction need to be treated concurrently in order for treatment to be successful. Our highly skilled staff members understand the stress levels, specific triggers, and issues plaguing the military today, and innovative therapies are highly effective.

If you have served our country and now suffer from addiction, PTSD, or a combination of the two, we can help. Group, individual and family therapy are often employed and can be very helpful in preventing relapse and moving toward sobriety. Call today for more information on how we can help you start the healing process.

help for ptsd and addiction

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[1]”Drug Facts: Substance Abuse in the Military.” (March 2013). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mandal, A. (n.d.). “Morphine History.” News-Medical. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[4] “Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History.” (n.d.). DEA Museum. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[5] Davis, D.; Goodwin, D.; Robins, L. (Aug. 1973). “Drug Use By U.S. Army Enlisted Men in Vietnam: A Follow Up on Their Return Home.” American Journal of Epidemiology. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[6] AP. (April 2012). “US Army Investigated Soldiers Over Suspected Drug Abuse in Afghanistan, Data Show.” NBC News. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Saxton, A. (July 2011). “Returning Veterans With Addictions.” Psychiatric Times. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[9] “Veterans and Drugs.” (n.d.). NCADD. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[10] Alvarez, L. (July 2008). “Home From the War, Many Veterans Battle Substance Abuse.” New York Times. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[11] Ibid.
[12] “PTSD: A Growing Epidemic.”(Winter 2008). NIH Medline Plus. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[13] Catan, T. (Nov. 2013). “For Veterans With PTSD, a New Demon: Their Meds.” Wall Street Journal. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[14] “PTSD and Problems With Alcohol Use.” (n.d.). SAHMSA. Accessed July 10, 2014.
[15] Taite, R. (June 2014). “We Owe Our Veterans a Look at PTSD, Addiction and Suicide.” Psychology Today. Accessed July 10, 2014.