Drug Use in the Military: The Many Aspects of the Problem

Last Updated: January 6, 2022

Authored by Olivier George, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Drug addiction is a condition that anyone can have, whether to drugs or alcohol. However, substance abuse disorders are quite significant for military veterans. Members frequently turn to heavy alcohol consumption as a means of recreation and stress relief. Members on active duty are sometimes offered alcohol at discounts. Military alcohol policy is relatively lax.

Some studies have demonstrated that being deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and exposed to combat there, can induce new-onset heavy drinking, higher consumption of alcoholic drinks, and binge drinking.

Substance abuse is not restricted to alcohol either, with the abuse of prescription and illicit drugs increasing quicker among the military demographic than the average population. It is likely to arise due to the frequent prescribing of pain medications for combat injuries. A study showed that misuse of prescription opioids was uncommon before recruitment.

This article will discuss their drug use, the severity of the problem, rehab for veterans, resources that veterans can contact, and more.

Drug Use in the Military Among Active Personnel

Data shows that tobacco, alcohol, and prescription drug abuse are more prevalent and steadily increasing in members of the national armed forces compared to the rest of society. Interestingly, illicit drug use in the military is lower than in the civilian population. So why do active-duty members of the military abuse alcohol and prescription drugs?

In 2018, over 33% of service members reported binge drinking in the past month, and approximately 10% of members were classified as heavy drinkers. Additionally, the misuse of prescription medication is present in 10% of military members, compared to just 1.8% of the general population.

Thoughtful old veteran taking a pill.

One of the biggest reasons for substance abuse in military personnel is the stress of deployment in a war-torn region. Loneliness, fatigue, being away from home, and spending months on end in a challenging environment make members of the national services particularly vulnerable to substance abuse. The military’s unique culture and strict discipline are other factors that influence addictive behavior. The stigma associated with addiction and the lack of confidentiality act as deterrents in seeking treatment for drug and alcohol problems.

Illicit Drug Use

Exposure to war leaves veterans grappling with extreme stress upon returning home. The mental scars of traumatic situations and lingering pain from physical injuries can drive veterans towards illicit substances. Mental illness, PTSD, and substance abuse are all concerning problems in this group of people. However, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that veterans’ use of illicit drugs, including marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine, is lower than the national population.

It’s likely because the Department of Defense has a zero-tolerance military drug policy in this regard. Illicit drug use is not only frowned upon greatly, but members found to be engaging in the use of illegal drugs such as through refusing to take a drug test, testing positive, having illicit drugs or paraphernalia can face serious consequences. These include dishonorable discharges, administrative sanctions, and even prison time.

The 2018 Health-Related Behaviors Survey by the Department of Defense showed that only 1.3 percent of military personnel had engaged in illicit drug use in the last twelve months. That compares favorably to 19.4% in the general population. It shows that the consequences of drug use in the military are likely to be very effective deterrents.

Prescription Drug Abuse

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug use in the military has risen steadily from 2 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2008, with opioid pain medications being the most commonly abused drugs by military men and women. According to a study conducted by the Department of Defense, prescription drug misuse is two and a half times higher in military personnel than civilian rates.

Where do service members get prescription pain pills? Veterans may be prescribed highly-addictive prescription anti-anxiety and pain-relieving medications to treat legitimate conditions such as PTSD and chronic pain. Growing misuse is driven by the widespread availability and easy-to-contact resources for military personnel, which has increased the number of prescriptions for opioid pain medications. The trend is worrisome.

However, unregulated use of these drugs can spiral into full-blown dependence and drug-seeking behaviors. In addition, lack of access to affordable and effective addiction treatment and rehab for veterans may fuel the problem of substance abuse in U.S. veterans.

Alcohol

Binge drinking, new-onset heavy drinking, and misuse of prescription drugs are highest among military personnel with multiple deployments and active combat exposure. American troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan can obtain alcohol even in Muslim nations where access to liquor is controlled. Liquor is sold at U.S. bases at a lower price than civilian stores. Barrack parties are an accepted part of military culture and are believed to help deal with the stresses of the battlefield.

Military man holding a vodka shot.

These parties are possible because the alcohol policy is relatively less strict when compared to the military drug policy. However, they still attempt to control how much enlisted members consume. Members can be punished for being impaired while on duty, disorderly conduct, and drunken operation of vehicles.

The consequences do not serve as a comparably intense deterrent to the consumption of illicit drugs, which explains the high percentage of binge drinkers among men and women in service. Many resort to alcohol to help numb physical pain or deal with PTSD.

Studies show that more than 40 percent of U.S. military veterans suffer from alcohol use disorder at some point in their life. Veterans tend to hide drug and alcohol problems, eventually manifesting in dangerous behaviors like binge drinking and domestic violence. Self-medicating with alcohol to deal with PTSD is also common.

Underage Drinking in the Military

Military alcohol policy sets the legal age of drinking at 21 years old. Despite strict regulations against underage drinking, with consequences as severe as a court-martial or discharge from the army, 25.1% of binge drinking episodes were reported by those between 17 and 20 years old.

Even outside the military, when underage drinking occurs, it is likely due to contact with an enabler. As much as an underage military member might want to engage in alcohol consumption, they typically need a third party of age to help them acquire it. For this reason, consequences usually extend to more than one person.

Easy access to alcohol is a major problem in a military setting. Recruits state that alcohol is easy to acquire in the barracks, bars, and foreign ports, particularly for navy recruits, where alcohol was inexpensive as well. It, unfortunately, makes underage drinking in the military a common occurrence.

Causes Of Veteran Alcohol Abuse and Drug Abuse

Retired members of the armed forces are not immune to addiction. This group of people must deal with complex health and economic challenges. The psychological stress of combat experiences and the demanding environment of military life can trigger substance use disorders. Long deployments and frequent moves lead to strained relationships with loved ones. Thousands of veterans face critical problems such as unemployment and homelessness. It is not surprising then that veterans use drugs and alcohol as a crutch to deal with the hardships of service and readjustment to civilian life.

Veteran in a wheelchair and a bottle of whiskey on the table.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that about 7 percent of U.S. veterans have a substance use disorder. Almost 20 percent of military men and women who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq suffer from PTSD, depression, or traumatic brain injury, all of which are conditions that predispose them to drug use in the military. Mental health conditions and substance abuse are the leading cause of hospitalizations among U.S. troops.

The Causes of Substance Abuse in the Military Include the Following:

  1. High incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder: Personnel in the armed forces have to endure extremely distressing events on multiple occasions. The PTSD that arises can be tough to deal with, leading these veterans to turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medicating.
  2. High incidence of mental health conditions: Veterans tend to be more prone to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety based on the mental stress that active service causes. Some may find alcohol or illicit drugs to help deal with their symptoms.
  3. Combat exposure: Exposure to combat increases the risk of combat injuries and trauma. These, in turn, can increase the risk of mental health disorders. All of these can cause veteran alcohol abuse and drug abuse.
  4. Traumatic brain injuries: Veterans may have experienced traumatic brain injury during their campaigns, and this has been shown to increase the risk of substance abuse due to impairments in cognition.
  5. History of substance misuse during active service: A track record of substance abuse or misuse can be a pointer to substance abuse in the future, even for those who are not in active service.
  6. Chronic pain due to overuse and injuries: Alcohol and prescription drugs are used to resolve pain from injuries obtained during service years.
  7. Inability to cope with stress: Veterans may feel that alcohol, prescription, or illicit drugs serve as a means to take the edge off. An abuse pattern may emerge from this.
  8. Difficulty in transitioning to civilian life: During life in the barracks or during service, members do not need to deal with the struggles of life such as housing, food, and others. It can be challenging to cope once they dive back into civilian life, and this stress can lead them to abuse alcohol or drugs.
  9. Reluctance to seek help due to stigma: There are options available for veterans seeking help for mental conditions, but some may feel a form of stigma if they admit their problems. They may choose to deal with their symptoms by misusing prescription drugs.

Veterans and PTSD: Increasing the Risk Of Addiction

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition commonly seen in U.S. military veterans due to experiencing life-threatening events during deployment. PTSD can happen to anyone but is more likely to occur after long-lasting and intense trauma, such as combat. Age, gender, additional stressors, and social support all affect the development and severity of PTSD.

PTSD and substance abuse disorders frequently go hand-in-hand. People with PTSD are up to two to four times more likely to battle an addiction. Among veterans with PTSD, 27 percent also have a substance use disorder. PTSD, substance abuse, and addiction have a complex relationship that makes treatment challenging. The distressing symptoms of PTSD can lead a veteran to use drugs or alcohol as a temporary escape, especially considering the relatively light military alcohol policy is likely to have predisposed them to turn to alcohol. The high levels of stress in veterans can make them turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. Access to prescription opioid painkillers for injuries sustained during combat predisposes veterans to misuse.

Life After Active Duty​

United States service members deployed in war are at constant risk of injury and death. Returning home to friends and family is a happy circumstance. Yet, it is not easy to get back to normal life following a war. The transition to civilian life involves finding housing and employment. Veterans must also get used to the lack of military benefits and unit camaraderie.

The homecoming theory is a framework for understanding the stressors of reintegration into civilian society. Many veterans think of the military as their family and feel belonging with unit members due to shared experiences. Everyday civilian life can feel alien to returning service members due to lack of structure, loss of purpose, and a sense of disconnection. It can lead to veteran alcohol abuse.

Some of the Difficulties Faced by Service Members Returning Home Include:

  • Debilitating psychological and physical ailments
  • Difficulty getting healthcare, such as Veterans Administration drug rehab
  • Active criticism of the war from which they have returned
  • Changed family and personal circumstances
  • Reconnecting and getting reacquainted with family and friends
  • Readjusting to the civilian workforce and finding employment
  • PTSD, depression, mental health conditions, traumatic brain injury​
  • Missing military life and unit support
  • Feeling alienated or bored with mundane civilian life

Veterans Administration Drug Rehab

Veteran alcohol drug abuse is a problem well-identified, even by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. One of the official government resources, the Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program, provides rehab for those eligible for the program. To qualify for this Veterans Administration drug rehab program, the individual must be enrolled in the health care system under V.A.

This is among the resources that can provide medical detoxification, drug substitution therapy, counseling, residential treatment services, and other forms of care. It makes it easier to get rehab, even in cases where their treatment needs may be rather specific.

For those who may not be eligible for the government veterans rehabilitation resource for one reason or another, there are several other private rehab clinics and services that veterans can contact.

There are no consequences for veterans who come out regarding their substance use issues. For this reason, it is encouraged that they contact the Veterans Administration drug rehab program to get the help that is required.

V.A. Substance Abuse Programs​

Many returning service members suffer from major depression, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and suicidal ideation. More than 2 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two decades. In addition, the V.A. provides care to vets from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War. More than 1,200,000 past service members received mental health treatment from the VA in 2010. Yet, only 50 percent of vets who need treatment for mental health conditions receive appropriate care. There is a need to increase capacity and provide additional training for the existing workforce providing mental healthcare services and rehab for veterans.

Substance abuse is a pressing health concern in war veterans and active-duty military personnel. These individuals are especially susceptible to addiction due to their intense experiences during deployment and combat. There are many challenges and barriers to reducing substance abuse in veterans who are often grappling with PTSD and reintegration into normal society. However, a number of interventions and resources, including veterans rehabilitation, behavioral therapies, and pharmacological treatment, can help military men and women with drug and alcohol problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Take Anxiety Meds in the Military?

You cannot take anxiety medication while active personnel. However, if you have previously been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, you may be in the armed services if you haven’t needed treatment in the last three years and for more than 12 months in total.

Can Active Duty Military Take Antidepressants?

Active-duty military officers cannot take antidepressants, as depression is a condition that disqualifies an individual from applying to any military force. This is contained in the Medical Standards for Military Service.

Can You Drink in the Military?

Alcohol is not outlawed for officers of age in the military, though there are logical limitations to when and where they can consume it. For instance, it is not permitted during duty and drinking to the point of being impaired at performing their duties.

Is Alcoholism a V.A. Disability?

Alcoholism and substance use disorders are not considered V.A. disabilities. While other psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety may be covered, the same does not extend to alcoholism.

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Page Sources

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Published on: January 6th, 2022

Updated on: January 6th, 2022

About Author

Olivier George, Ph.D.

Olivier George is a medical writer and head manager of the rehab center in California. He spends a lot of time in collecting and analyzing the traditional approaches for substance abuse treatment and assessing their efficiency.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.