Military personnel have a unique subculture and deal with different stressors and issues than an average civilian. Combat and wartime deployment put active duty and military veterans at risk for unhealthy coping methods like drugs and alcohol. Plus, the stigmas and zero-tolerance policies that exist in the military deter many from seeking help.
While zero-tolerance policies prevent some from getting treatment, they also act as a deterrent for illicit drug use among active duty military. Only 2.3 percent of the military 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 pain reliever prescriptions for combat-related injuries and strain from heavy lifting. Alcohol abuse and binge drinking also are higher in the military population, with nearly half of active duty service members admitting to binge drinking episodes. Combat exposure and wartime situations seem to only increase these statistics.1
Higher Addiction Rates Among Some Drugs
Prescription drug and alcohol abuse is more prevalent in the military.
History of Military Drug Addiction
The United States military is no stranger to substance abuse; in fact, it runs rampant throughout military history. One of the bloodiest wars in American history was the Civil War (1861-1865). More than one million Americans were killed and countless others were injured or developed debilitating diseases.
With the invention of the syringe in 1853 and the newly minted opioid pain reliever, morphine, caregivers had a seemingly perfect solution to ease pain and suffering on the front lines. Doctors injected it frequently, not realizing its high potential for addiction. As a result, soldiers were addicted to morphine for decades after the war. Morphine addictions were known as the soldier’s disease.2
By World War I (1914-1919), soldiers had ready access to instant coffee and pre-rolled cigarettes, giving them a caffeine and nicotine fix. The American Expeditionary Force ended up giving out 14 million cigarettes a day by the war’s end. Decades later during World War II (1939-1945), soldiers began drinking alcohol, partly due to the recent end of prohibition. Alcohol was available on army bases and even handed out with military rations. Another drug that emerged during WWII was the stimulant methamphetamine. It was given to pilots and tank drivers to keep them focused and awake during combat. 3,4
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. Due to harsh consequences and random drug tests, active duty military personnel typically stay away from these drugs. Soldiers, however, are not immune to the allure of 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. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium, making temptation difficult to overcome in such a stressful environment.5
Today alcohol and prescription pain relievers are 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.6 Soldiers on active duty cite boredom, along with depression, anxiety, and an attempt to self-medicate or cope with stress as reasons for drinking heavily. Similarly, with 3.8 million service members using prescribed pain medication, it’s no surprise that military personnel report opioid dependence.7
Veterans and Drug Usage
Military personnel are at risk of using substances after leaving the military and combat as well. One general estimated 20 percent of combat veterans turned to drugs or heavy drinking upon their return. These soldiers are trained to be tough and 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 go untreated, with less than one-tenth reporting problems with alcohol and even being referred for treatment.8
PTSD and Drug Abuse
A common mental health disorder for active duty military and veterans is PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.Stressful events, trauma or the overwhelming aftereffects of combat situations lead to PTSD development. Another issue for soldiers is traumatic brain injury (TBI). Brain injuries occur when someone receives a jolt or blow to the head that impairs normal brain function, such as when soldiers are near explosions. Many who suffer from PTSD also suffer from TBI.
According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, the numbers of those reporting for PTSD treatment are as high as:
- 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.9
Additionally, 60 to 80 percent of veterans from the Vietnam War suffering from PTSD also have an alcohol use disorder. Substance abuse makes the treatment of PTSD much harder and worsens the symptoms.11
Perhaps these two disorders commonly occur 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 feelings of depression or unhappiness. Numbing the pain and drowning sorrows seem more appealing to some than seeking help to combat inner demons.
Addiction Help Is Available
So many military personnel and veterans need help for substance abuse and they still do not seek treatment. Mental health treatment and therapy are seen as a sign of weakness, and this is only one of the stigmas these men and women face on a daily basis. Not only is getting help imperative, it’s life saving.
1 National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Substance Abuse in the Military.” March 2013. Accessed 5 June 2017.
2 Mandal, Ananya. “Morphine History.” News-Medical Life Sciences. Accessed 5 June 2017.
3 Raymond, Adam K. “10 Wars and the Drugs That Defined Them.”The Fix, 31 May 2012. Accessed 5 June 2017.
4 Price, Todd A. “World War II changed how America drank: Live from Tales of the Cocktail.” The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, 16 July 2015. Accessed 5 June 2017.
5 Herridge, Catherine. “Afghan military recruits found dealing drugs to US soldiers, Army documents show.” Fox News, 20 April 2012. Accessed 5 June 2017.
6 Saxon, Andrew J. “Returning Veterans With Addictions.” Psychiatric Times, 14 July 2011. Accessed 5 June 2017.
7 National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. “Alcoholism, Drug Dependence and Veterans.” 28 June 2015. Accessed 5 June 2017.
8 Alvarez, Lizette. “Home from the war, many veterans battle substance abuse.” New York Times, 8 July 2008. Accessed 5 June 2017.
9 NIH Medline Plus. “PTSD: A Growing Epidemic.” 2009. Accessed 5 June 2017.