Military Service and Addiction

Soldier drinks at home

The stresses of deployment during wartime and the unique, rigorous, even brutal nature of military life can create physical and mental crises for current and retired service members. And when we add to that the zero-tolerance drug policies that the military has, plus the underlying stigma against any admission of personal difficulty or crisis, few service members even feel as though they can seek help for a drug habit or a drinking problem.

Unfortunately, military men and women often experience struggles that most people in the civilian population never have to face. When soldiers return home from a tour of duty in a foreign country, they often come back with more than just a duffel bag on their shoulders. It might be the soldier who comes home with a serious injury he will suffer from for the rest of his life. Or it could be the soldier who lost a close friend in battle

As a result, some military members, active duty or veteran, turn to drugs and alcohol as a solution to escape the pain they are feeling.

How can we help military men and women who become addicted to drugs and alcohol?

How Common is Addiction in the Military?

It’s important to understand just how frequent substance abuse is in the military, and the factors which create this problem. For example, did you know that half of military service members feel that seeking help for mental or behavioral health issues would negatively affect their military career? Or that service members face dishonorable discharge and even criminal prosecution for a failed drug test?

When a soldier feels as though seeking help will damage his or her career, they are less likely to speak out. They fear the repercussions will be harsh and swift should they admit to a drug habit or a drinking problem. And so they continue with their habit, quietly keeping it to themselves and hoping that they can manage it on their own.

More than one in ten veterans meet the criteria for an addiction to drugs or alcohol. There are clearly hardships of life in the service. And any such hardship can lead to substance abuse. But there are factors in life after service which also have a substantial impact. Veterans are often the victims of chronic pain, permanent injury, feelings of grief, loss of purpose, even homelessness. All of these factors increase the risk of substance abuse.

Prescription Drugs:

Soldier stils painkillers

According to studies, about 4 percent of active-duty service members misuse prescription drugs. Much of this is simply because active-duty personnel are being exposed to such drugs more often. Like the civilian population, prescribing trends in the military boomed throughout the first two decades of the 21st century. Military physicians wrote 3.8 million prescriptions for pain medication in 2009, almost four times the number of prescriptions written for such drugs in 2001, even though average pain levels among active-duty personnel had not increased by anywhere near a comparable margin.

As for veterans, two-thirds of veterans report that they experience pain, with 9 percent of them saying they experience severe pain. Furthermore, the percentage of veterans who receive pain medications has steadily climbed since 2001. And as each year went by and veterans were increasingly prescribed opiates, veteran overdose rates also went up. In 2010, 14 percent of all veterans on a pain management program experienced an overdose. In 2016, 21 percent overdosed.


Alcohol is the most common form of substance abuse among both active and retired service members. Among active-duty personnel, binge drinking occurs among 30 percent of personnel, as compared to 24 percent of the civilian population engaging in binge drinking.

Similar statistics were found among veterans. About 7.5 percent of this group has a substantial drinking problem, whereas 6.5 percent of the civilian population has this struggle. When both active duty and veteran military men and women do seek help for a substance abuse habit, alcohol is the number one most common drug of choice.

Military Members Experience Unique Challenges and Struggles

There is no doubting the fact that military men and women experience an entirely different life and a career that most of us will never experience or even fully understand. There is honor, respect, and satisfaction in military service, but there is also sacrifice and the risk of death.

Military veterans who have served in multiple deployments, experienced combat, and come home with injuries are especially at risk. Just like civilians, these individuals are likely to be prescribed prescription painkillers which are highly addictive drugs. But such individuals are also likely to use or experiment with other prescription drugs, alcohol, or other narcotics to cope with physical and emotional pains.

Military members, active duty and retired alike, are at risk of developing substance abuse habits. With that being said, how can the parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents, and other family members of military personnel do their best to help their loved ones get treatment for addiction?

How Can You Help a Veteran or Active Duty Service Member?

Soldier with a family in a treatment

While each branch of the military does offer substance abuse treatment, a short program, some outpatient care, or perhaps a few support meetings is rarely enough to help service members and veterans overcome the layers of crisis and struggle that led them to use drugs and alcohol in the first place.

The best way to help military men and women overcome addiction is by assisting them in getting into residential, long-term drug and alcohol treatment centers. If you have a family member or loved one who served and who needs help with addiction recovery, make sure they have access to such a program.

Sometimes, veterans and service members do not want to go to rehab. Sometimes they feel as though they should overcome their problems on their own, or that it would be a sign of weakness if they had to seek treatment.

If this is the case, you have to do everything you can to get your loved one to see how dangerous their addiction is, how it is negatively affecting their life and the lives of their loved ones. You have to help them understand how bad things are now and how much worse they will get if they do not seek help. If necessary, you may need to enlist the help of an interventionist.

Addiction is a life or death issue. And it is not something that goes away on its own. Make sure your loved one gets help today.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.