Relationship Between Military Service and Addiction

Current and former servicemen and women are vulnerable to many mental health issues due to the stress and trauma incurred from combat and witnessing violence. Active combat experience along with injuries, illnesses, homesickness as well as anxiety puts them at greater risk for substance use disorders. Veterans suffer from the pressure and complications of going back into society after living the military life. All of these things put veterans and active duty members at risk for developing addictions as a way to cope.

A study shows that 53% of outpatient veterans were treated for substance abuse disorders from 1995 to 2013 where addiction is the top concern in terms of health care. About 45% of 397 non-combat related deaths in 2006 until 2009 that were investigated were found out to be a result of drug overdose, among these military men and women. The frequency of alcohol and drug abuse among current and former army service members has caused problems in many ways, and it is important we discuss the connection between military service and addiction. 

Alcohol and Drugs in the Military

According to NIDA, 47% of active military members reported issues with binge drinking. This behavior, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is consuming enough alcohol in one sitting to raise the blood alcohol concentration to 0.008g/dL. They also reported that men can drink about five drinks in a span of 5 hours while women can drink 4. NIDA added that 20% of military personnel that are active on duty has reported that they have engaged in binge-drinking activities each week for the prior months. When they are exposed to high levels of combat, this rate increases to 27%. 

Another substance mainly abused by current and former service members is tobacco. According to NIDA, about 30% have stated that they are smokers, which is 1% higher than the general population. There is also a relatively small percentage of active-duty personnel that use illegal substances, however NIDA pointed that most of the drugs abused are prescription medicines which are mainly opioids. 

Inactive military personnel are not exactly immune to drug use and abuse. In fact, about 11% of veterans have met the criteria for substance use disorders according to a 2017 study published in Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation journal. 

Causes of Substance Abuse

There are a number of factors that affect the increase of the number of military personnel being addicted to drugs and alcohol. These could be due to the following:

The stress of their deployment

Study shows that stress related to deployment can be divided into three parts: pre-deployment, during deployment, and after or post-deployment. During the first stage of deployment (or the pre-deployment) many military men are already experiencing stressors like problems in their marriage, dealing with children who are sad or depressed about their deployment, preparation for an extended absence and coming to terms that they could get killed or injured during their deployment.

During their deployment, there is a big chance that they can get injured or killed as well as injuring or killing other human beings, and witnessing death. They are often exposed to extreme temperatures and different terrains which makes it hard for them to get proper rest or sleep. Being exposed to chemical radiation or warfare is also a possibility, plus the fact that they have limited communication from their families back home can be a depressing situation for many military men. 

Although returning home after their deployment can be a joyful time, the stress still remains for many military men and women long after their time serving. It could be due to their loss of independence, the uncertainty of fitting in their family because of their extended absence, being unable to let go of their military role upon returning to civilian life, or any number of complications with returning to civilian life. If they have been permanently injured during combat, the levels of stress can be even higher as they will have to adjust to life with a disability. PTSD is also very common post-deployment which makes it even harder for them to cope. They may also experience depression, troubles sleeping, reduced levels of motivation as well as other issues. This is why many veterans turn to alcohol or drugs in order to cope and function the way they want to. 

Combat exposures 

Another reason why military men and women turn to substance abuse is due to them being exposed to the violence and danger of combat. Studies showed that veterans who were exposed to combat during the Vietnam War had higher risk of substance abuse problems compared to those who have not seen any combat. 

Younger soldiers who are exposed to combat also have higher risks of developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol after discharge. A study conducted in 2018 showed that the use of prescription medicines and heavy drinking lowers the quality life of soldiers exposed to combat, making them vulnerable in the field.

Those who went through multiple deployments are also at high risk of developing an addiction. This is because of the cumulative effects in terms of related trauma and stress. Hand to hand combat, witnessing deaths, and having serious injuries during combat can cause one to abuse substances as means to cope. 

Psychological Stresses

PTSD, depression, and brain injuries are among the many issues military personnel often struggle with. Studies show that depression among military men is five times higher and PTSD is fifteen times higher compared to the general population. While the use of drugs and alcohol may be a temporary solution for “treating” the symptoms for depression, PTSD and other mental health issues, over time these could actually exacerbate the symptoms. This could lead to a development of a co-occurring substance use disorder that needs to be addressed immediately. 


Being in the army often involves active and rigorous work. Not only that, but they are also at risk for physical injuries especially if they are active-duty military personnel. Treatment for these injuries often includes prescribed medications like opioids and painkillers which can be misused, abused and often leads to substance addiction if not regulated properly. 

Treatment for Military Personnel

It is easy to link alcohol and drug abuse among military men and women. The psychological distress and trauma that they experience are among the major reasons why many turn to binge drinking and drug abuse. However, it is not too late to get help. For those who have issues with substance abuse, military bases offer free counseling to personnel. This is open for those who are dealing with depression and overwhelming stress that the job comes with. Random drug testing is also conducted and those who are found to be positive are referred to be assessed by professionals where detox may be recommended. Those who are active on duty have the option of assessment and treatment that fits their needs. Disciplinary action may be given if the abuse continues to worsen. Among the treatments given includes addressing the trauma, as well as treating co-occurring psychiatric disorders. 

If you are suffering from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders post-deployment or after being discharged from service, go out and seek medical treatment. Addressing these issues is a must, especially if these are already taking a toll on your health and daily activities. Remember that you are not alone and help is just a call away if you open yourself to the possibilities