Military Deployment and Substance Abuse

September 9, 2013

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Military Substance Abuse

Throughout history, our young men have gone off to war, proud to be doing something for their country. Today, women are also joining in this heritage. These dedicated individuals leave behind parents, wives, husbands, children, and friends who worry daily that their brave loved one might die in battle or return home with missing limbs. It rarely crosses anyone’s mind that their loved one will come home mentally broken or addicted to some type of prescription drug or alcohol, but this has been the case for thousands of our military personnel. We can help military substance abuse by understanding the reasons why military deployment can lead to substance abuse and give these Veterans the respect and assistance they need and deserve.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA):

  • One in four Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans reported symptoms of a mental or cognitive disorder.
  • One in six reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • These disorders are strongly associated with military substance abuse and dependence, as are other problems experienced by returning military personnel, including sleep disturbances, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and violence in relationships.
  • Active combat appears to be a contributing factor in these numbers.

One study released by the Pentagon shows that approximately 63,000 military persons admitted having a drinking problem. Additionally, military physicians wrote over 5 million prescriptions for painkillers, muscle relaxants, barbiturates, and stimulants. This amount has increased from less than a million prescriptions written in 2001. War seems to be highly profitable for pharmaceutical companies, but devastating for military veterans and their families.

Are Veterans More Likely Than Civilians to Commit Suicide?

An under-reported epidemic of suicides among military people has escalated in recent years. The Department of Deployment and Substance AbuseVeterans Affairs reports that every 65 minutes another military veteran commits suicide. Sadly, over 31% of these were people under the age of 49. Additionally, suicide rates among active duty personnel hit a record high in 2012 with over 340 suicides in that year, almost one death a day. There are now more deaths resulting from suicide than from actual combat wounds. Military substance abuse is possibly a contributing factor in some of these numbers as suicide is often one of the side effects of opiate-based drugs.

Many of these young men and women return home with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) or PTSD (Post Traumatic Shock Disorder), or both. Considerable research has been done on this subject and some studies show that there is a relationship between high-risk suicide veterans and the number of times they were wounded or experienced combat trauma. Deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in increased numbers, with TBI at over 22% of all combat casualties. As many as 60-80% of soldiers who suffered blast injuries may have TBI. [2]

Is Anything Being Done to Help These Men and Women with Military Substance Abuse?

A concentrated effort by the Pentagon, Department of Defense (DoD) and Institute of Medicine (IOM) is underway to establish more stringent guidelines and protocols for addressing the substance abuse problem in the military, with focus on rehabilitation for these Veterans. Currently, studies are underway to determine the efficacy of benzodiazepines to treat or manage core PTSD symptoms such as dissociation, hyper arousal, numbing, and avoidance. So far, there is no evidence supporting the use of these drugs and there is growing evidence that the risk of long-term harm far outweighs any benefit of using them for the secondary symptoms such as insomnia or anxiety.

PTSD and SUD (Substance Use Disorder)

Continued use or abuse of drugs or alcohol eventually leads to Substance Use Disorder, and when this is co-occurring with PTSD or TBI, treatment must be comprehensive and address each condition simultaneously.

Someone trying to cope with the challenges of PTSD or TBI might find solace in alcohol or drugs, but what they don’t realize is that this is making the situation much worse. For instance:

  • Creates sleep problems, and alcohol or drugs also interfere with the quality of your sleep
  • May make you irritable, angry and depressed, and drugs or alcohol amplify these feelings
  • Makes you feel “on guard”, and drugs or alcohol tend to enhance paranoia
  • Drugs and alcohol delay your ability to get in touch with your fears and learn to deal with them

Other factors to consider with military substance abuse are health problems, chronic pain, relationship problems, and trouble remaining employed or in school. Adding drugs or alcohol into the equation is certainly going to exacerbate the situation.


According to studies, there is a direct relationship between PTSD and SUD (Substance Use Disorder).

For example:

  • 2 out of 10 Veterans have both PTSD and SUD
  • Veterans with PTSD tend to be binge drinkers to avoid bad memories
  • 1 out of 3 Veterans seeking SUD treatment also has PTSD
  • 6 out of 10 Veterans with PTSD are heavy smokers
  • 1 in 10 soldiers seen in the VA has problems with drugs or alcohol

A report by The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reveals the disturbing fact that on a single Deployment and Substance Abusenight in January 2012 there were 62,619 homeless Veterans in our nation. Although there are many government agencies, community groups, citizens and foundations working diligently to bring these numbers down, unfortunately, they aren’t able to help all of the veterans.

The IOM suggests some things that should be done to effectively address the problem:

  • Improve the military health insurance (Tricare) to cover therapy for substance abuse
  • Limit troops’ access to alcoholic beverages on base
  • Routinely screen troops for alcohol or drug abuse
  • Offer confidential treatment services
  • Increase public awareness and involvement

Other things that are being done to help military substance abuse are initiated by civilians. There are hundreds of websites, organizations, and individuals that are dedicated to providing extensive resources and information to help families of veterans recognize the warning signs of depression or suicidal tendencies.

Currently, the DoD operates crisis lines and websites where those who might be contemplating suicide can reach out and find someone to talk to, and this reportedly has saved over 26,000 lives. That is a huge accomplishment, however, it is disturbing to realize that there were so many people actually thinking of ending their lives.

They Deserve to Enjoy the Country They Fought For

If we succeed in removing the stigma about veterans and their problems, perhaps the day will come when more Americans will band together to offer whatever aid or compassion we can for these unfortunate individuals who only wanted to serve their country and live to enjoy it the way the rest of us do. None of them intended to become an addict to prescription drugs or alcohol, nor did they plan on being a homeless person. They deserve more than they are getting.

If you would like help with military substance abuse, call now and speak with one of our representatives.


  1. Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs Chart from the National Institute on Drug Abuse
  2. The Relationship Between PTSD and Suicide:
  3. The Role of Benzodiazepines in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  4. Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD

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