Written By: Linda Whiteside


Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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Why do so many veterans suffer from addiction?

The life of a military service member is not easy. They suffer separation from family for extended periods of time, missed celebrations, the death of loved ones, and a plethora of other sacrifices. For many, these sacrifices are just a necessary part of serving the country. Most service members understand the commitment and the toll it takes to be a part of the military. Still, these sacrifices and commitments should not discount their needs when faced with impossible difficulties.

A life of service, or even a short term, can leave veterans dealing with chronic pain, mental health struggles, PTSD, and difficulty adjusting to life outside of the military. Due to this, many will turn to substances to cope. While drug and alcohol abuse are growing problems in the nation, the rates of veteran substance abuse are absolutely staggering.

This abuse leaves many feeling broken and forgotten by the country they gave so much to. This article will explore the depths of substance abuse and addiction many veterans struggle with. It will address the causes and struggles they face. As it concludes, this article will also offer some ways veterans can seek out support and treatment for addiction.

A Veteran’s Sacrifice

In order to receive a pension and lifelong medical benefits, most veterans must serve 20 to 30 years in the military. Nonetheless, there are cases where injury or mental health difficulties force them to leave prematurely and still receive some form of support. Regardless, any length of time spent in service to the military can leave a veteran struggling.

Many serving in high combat branches, such as the Marine Corps or Army, face situations that cause physical injuries or involve witnessing death. Either of these scenarios could lead to PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and some sort of trauma. Learning to manage and cope with physical and mental pain can be a struggle for any person.

In other cases, veterans who have departed from the military may find adjusting to civilian life is hard. They may feel that the institution of the military has made it difficult to understand civilian life. While they are serving, they may even find friends or family have moved on and it is challenging to find their place without them.

To deal with any of these complications many veterans turn to substance abuse in one way or another.

Veterans and Substance Abuse

While alcohol use is common throughout most of the nation for all demographics, it is almost synonymous with the military. Illicit drug use could result in dishonorable discharge for service members if they are caught, so many service members turn to alcohol as a means of unwinding. This isn’t to say that drug use in active-duty service members is obsolete. There are still a number of service members who use drugs, some illicit and some prescribed by doctors, to manage the daily struggle of the military.

In many cases, service members feel the need to relieve the stress of their occupation. Data shows veterans are more likely to be smokers. Smoking can be used as a means of relieving stress. While this can be done socially in the military, many veterans find the habit sticks around when they do depart from the military.

Veterans and Alcohol Abuse

When seeking ways to take their minds off the job, service members may seek out alcohol to use socially. This can range from a few beers after a shift to binge drinking during downtime. While excessive drinking is not branch-specific, data does show combat-exposed service members are more likely to severely abuse alcohol as a means of coping with trauma.

This habit of binge drinking or seeking alcohol to ease the stress of deployments, high-maintenance work, and dealing with workplace politics is almost encouraged by many service members. It becomes the center of their social lives as service members often find themselves faced with several living restrictions, such as being unable to leave the base or the area they are stationed in. This in a way also encourages underage drinking, as many younger service members may live in barracks and not have a means of transportation to get out for downtime.

In other situations, alcohol may be used to help cope with physical or mental pain. If a service member suffers an injury they may abuse alcohol as a means of finding relief from that injury. In some cases, injuries could result in being discharged from service. If the service member does not want that, they may avoid medical treatment, which can, in turn, cause them to self-medicate instead with alcohol.

If a service member has witnessed or experienced events that would cause long-lasting trauma they may also use alcohol as a means to numb the emotions that come with that trauma.

All this alcohol use, recreational or abusive, could form habits that last with service members far past their time in the military. When veterans rely on alcohol use to cope with all of life’s challenges rather than using healthy methods, they are at a high risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.

Veterans and Drugs Abuse

Considering the fact that drug abuse could potentially result in being dishonorably discharged from service, it is not as common for the active-duty military to use them. It should be noted that drug use still does occur. However, many veterans who abuse illicit drugs or find themselves addicted to them are using them as the result of prescription use or because they wanted something more.

Some veterans who suffer severe injury or PTSD will be prescribed medications to manage. These medications are usually:

  • Painkillers
  • Benzodiazepines for anxiety
  • Sedatives

However, in an effort to combat addiction in veterans, many doctors will try to limit the amount of medication given. Or in the case of pain, they will try to treat it with over-the-counter painkillers, such as Motrin. While the intentions are good, sometimes this can backfire. If a veteran finds themselves forming a physical dependence on the prescription medication it may be difficult adjusting to life without it, or adjusting to a less potent medication. This can cause veterans to turn to illicit drugs, such as heroin, because it is cheaper and easier than fighting for a prescription.

This compulsive drug-seeking behavior is something that veterans often struggle with outside of the military. It tends to be a key indicator of addiction. For this reason, seeking treatment and getting outside help is important.

Problems Veterans Face Adjusting to Civilian Life

Adjusting from the military to civilian life can come with challenges for any service member. If a veteran finds themselves fortunate enough to depart from the military without a physical injury or severe mental health concerns, they could still find their new life daunting. Finding a new home, career, and adjusting to a new family dynamic can be a lot to manage. However, the adjustment might be even more difficult for those veterans who struggle with:

  • Chronic pain
  • PTSD, depression, etc.
  • Substance dependence or addiction
  • Homelessness

Each of these issues would cause a veteran to struggle and find means of coping. Often that involves drugs and alcohol.

Veterans Suffering from Chronic Pain

Living every day in unbearable pain can be debilitating. Chronic pain can cause disabilities, decreasing quality of life and making stable employment harder to come by. It is even possible to see it advance to depression, anxiety, and loss of quality sleep.

In some cases, the pain can be the result of burns, brain injuries, or back or spinal cord damage which could cause nerve damage. Treatment for nerve pain is not as advanced as many would like and so treating the pain with prescription drugs often seems like the best solution. Though the VA (The Department of Veteran Affairs) warns against using opioids or benzodiazepines to treat pain, many physicians prescribe these drugs to vulnerable veterans.

Without a suitable way to manage pain with the help of a doctor, it becomes far too easy for veterans to seek out help by abusing alcohol and drugs.

Veterans Struggling with PTSD, Depression, or Other Mental Health Issues

Substance abuse is not the only concern for those who suffer from PTSD or other mental health issues. Severe mental health issues can veterans to suicidal ideation. The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that suicide rates for veterans are far higher than that of the general public. Their data shows that approximately 20 to 23 veterans commit suicide every day.

While veterans are encouraged to seek out help before getting to such a point, for many there is a stigma against expressing these struggles with mental health. For some, especially older generations of veterans, PTSD is a sign of weakness or failure. This puts many veterans at risk of not seeking help at all.

Rather than seeking help, these individuals may self-medicate instead. Drugs and alcohol can temporarily help numb the thoughts or intense feelings that veterans are experiencing. However, this is rarely helpful in the long term, as the withdrawal symptoms that occur can end  up increasing negative thoughts. The result can be even more severe chronic substance abuse, worse mental health, and even possible suicide.

Homelessness and Veterans

There are circumstances in which a service member will abruptly leave the military whether it is due to an injury or mental health struggles. In these cases, a veteran will not always receive a pension or medical benefits. If they suffer physical injuries this could also prevent them from gainful employment. All this could result in homelessness.

In some cases, homeless veterans may abuse substances as a means of coping with their situation. If a homeless veteran were to develop an addiction, or already suffer from one prior to leaving the military, they may not have the support system needed to seek help.

If you or a veteran you know is homeless there are resources to help such as Help for Homeless Veterans which can be reached at 877-424-3838.

Sexual Assault Trauma

Not all trauma is the result of seeing combat or a physical injury for many service members. Sexual assault in the military is disturbingly prevalent. Nearly 23% of female veterans report being sexually assaulted or harassed while serving in the military. However, it isn’t limited to only females, as men also report being assaulted. Given the stigma and social mores of the military, many men are shamed into keeping their assault to themselves. This trauma can result in severe mental illness, causing both male and female victims to cope using substances.

In some cases where the assault is severe enough to cause injury, some veterans will use prescription drugs to cope. If pain doesn’t cause them to use medications the resulting depression or anxiety may cause them to use opioids to manage their PTSD. In many cases, these assault victims could suffer from feelings of not being safe, night terrors, isolation and sleeping problems. These will all take a physical toll on them.

Feeling isolated and not taken seriously as a result of their trauma can cause veterans to turn to alcohol abuse to numb the feeling. In turn, excessive use is just a slippery slope for addiction. The stigma of being assaulted, whether one is male or female, can prevent veterans from seeking help while fighting their addictions. This puts them at a high risk of overdosing or even suicide.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Many veterans who choose to suffer in silence may feel as though it is not easy for them to reach out for help. A support system for veterans and military service members can be the difference between life and death. However, it is not easy to help a veteran if they are hiding their addiction or refusing to open up about it. In some cases, it may even be difficult to recognize the signs of substance abuse which could indicate when a veteran should seek help.

Signs of substance abuse to look for are:

  • Poor work performance
  • Being socially withdrawn
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low energy
  • Neglecting relationships
  • Obsessing about substances
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Recognizing these symptoms and intervening before it gets too late is very important. While convincing a person with an addiction to get help is not always easy, it is important to offer support where you can.

Supporting Veterans

Offering support for a veteran who is struggling with addiction means more than just giving a listening ear. In some cases, when a veteran seeks out recovery the success of that recovery could depend on the strength of a support system. The members of that support system have to be willing to change their own lifestyles and habits in order to help a veteran successfully.

It is very beneficial for anyone who seeks to support a veteran’s recovery to educate themselves about addiction. Understanding common behaviors and issues that may prevent recovery could make a world’s difference to a veteran who needs help. A truly supportive system can mean life or death for a veteran.

Getting Help

For many veterans, there is a terrible stigma around getting help. The military thrives on the idea of self-sufficiency and strong leadership. To some, being a strong leader means never having to seek help for problems or complications they face. In actual fact, this is not true. In truth, strong leaders are people who are able to rely on others successfully — but that does not stop the stigma from being prevalent.

This stigma can cause many veterans to turn to substances when they are suffering pain or mental health struggles. When it comes to finally seeking help for substance abuse, the stigma may force veterans to go the road alone. Many avoid seeing physicians who could make a proper diagnosis that would ultimately help them cope in the long run. This could eventually cause a veteran to cause harm to themselves or even those around them.

However, there is no shortage of resources that encourage veterans to get the help they need before it is too late. The Department of Defense even made efforts to get rid of the negative stigma by creating a campaign called Real Warriors. Real Battles. Real Strength. This campaign gives veterans and active-duty service members a platform to speak out about the struggles they face — in particular those wounds that may not be overtly visible, such as mental health complications, substance abuse, and trauma.

Furthermore, veterans are fortunate in that the VA offers many resources to seek out treatment for trauma and addiction. There are many programs that are government-funded, nonprofit, and community-oriented to help veterans feel less alone.

The Department of Veteran Affairs

Veterans who seek treatment should ensure they are enrolled in the VA health care system to optimize recovery. The VA offers many resources that could benefit veterans, such as:

  • Counseling, in group settings and one-on-one
  • PTSD treatment
  • Outpatient rehabilitation
  • Withdrawal treatment

The VA also seeks to educate veterans and active-duty military personnel about addiction by raising awareness for both the public and those affiliated with the military.

There are a few downsides to relying on the VA for help. The biggest issue is that the time it takes to receive care may not be immediate. In cases of addiction, immediate treatment is very important. In other cases, some veterans may find themselves fighting with the VA to get the help they feel they deserve. This should not discourage veterans from seeking help, but it is important to understand all the factors.

Veterans and Recovery

Veterans who are dealing with addiction or PTSD may struggle to find meaning in their lives outside of the structure of the military. Recovery may seem complicated and difficult to imagine, but it is possible to find treatment. Many treatment centers offer programs designed specifically to support veteran recovery. Many of these put a strong emphasis on therapy, relapse prevention, life skills, and general lifestyle habits. While life outside of the military may seem daunting, it is possible to make sense of it all with treatment and support.

NuView Treatment Center, a rehab in West Los Angeles, provides veterans and other members of the community with a wide variety of outpatient treatment programs. Our treatment programs help veterans escape from the vicious cycle of drug or alcohol dependence. Our modern facility, highly trained physicians and masters-level clinicians, and evidence-based treatment modalities can help anyone, regardless of the severity of their substance use disorder.

Our rehab includes every level of care, including:

  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)
  • Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs)
  • Outpatient programs (OPs)
  • Aftercare planning

At NuView Treatment Center, we believe in approaching addiction treatment on a whole-person basis. Compassion is emphasized above all. We never utilize a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment. Rather, we understand that all of our clients are individuals with unique stories, underlying issues, and specific needs. Our team and staff members design individualized treatment plans for every client who walks into our facility so that they can develop the coping tools they need to stay sober and live lives that are joyful, meaningful, and drug and alcohol-free.

If you are a veteran or active-duty service member with a drug or alcohol problem, help is available. Contact us today for a free and confidential consultation.

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