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Veterans and Substance Use Disorders

Active-duty and Veteran military members struggle with substance use disorders, just like the general population. With combat deployments, the stereotypical drinking culture, and chronic pain from injuries incurred on missions, it’s no surprise service members also face issues with addiction.1 In fact, about 11% of military Veterans meet criteria for a substance use disorder.2

Continue reading on to learn more about:

  • Substance abuse in active-duty military members, including information on specific military branches.
  • Substances commonly abused by Veterans, such as alcohol, prescription pills, and illicit drugs.
  • Symptoms of substance abuse.
  • The impacts of substance abuse on Veterans.
  • Help and resources for Veterans needing treatment.

Substance Abuse in Active-Duty Military Members

Although there is a zero-tolerance policy for substance use in the military, active-duty service members still battle addiction. This policy, unfortunately, just deters military personnel from seeking treatment. Some common substances abused in the military include:3

  • Alcohol.
  • Illicit drugs.
  • Opioids and other prescription medications.
  • Tobacco.

Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among active-duty military members. It’s difficult to determine if this prevalence is due to the culture of the military, a higher percentage of young, male service members, or exposure to combat and trauma.

Regardless of the possible reasons, research identifies 5.4% of military personnel as heavy drinkers, compared to the general population at 6.7%. Although, binge drinking is more common among the military compared to civilians, 30% vs. 24.7%, respectively.3

It’s also not uncommon for military members to be prescribed opioid pain medication following an injury in combat. Sadly, due to the addictive nature of the substance, service members frequently ask for prescription refills to continue managing the pain. This is so common that in 2009, military physicians wrote almost 3.8 million pain medication prescriptions, which is more than 4 times the number of prescriptions written in 2001.3

Branches of the Military

No one branch of the military is immune to substance use disorders—the Navy, Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard all experience varying degrees of substance abuse. Research from the RAND Corporation in 2015 looked at substance abuse across all branches of the military and found:4

  • The Marine Corps has the highest rates of binge drinking, heavy drinking, and hazardous drinking among all other military branches. The Navy followed second.
  • The Army has the highest rates of prescription pain reliever misuse.
  • The Marine Corps has the largest percentage of cigarette smokers.

Common Substances of Abuse Among Veterans

Given that so many military members misuse substances when on active duty, it’s not a surprise that Veterans continue to abuse drugs and alcohol after transitioning to civilian life.

As previously noted with active-duty military, common substances of abuse among Veterans include alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs. A number of factors can contribute to the development of a substance use disorder in Veterans including:2

  • Combat exposure.
  • Deployment.
  • Difficulties surrounding the reintegration into civilian life.


Alcohol is the most abused drug by Veterans. In fact, Veterans report more frequent alcohol use and heavier use of alcohol in a 1-month period than civilians do.2

There is also a positive correlation between alcohol use and combat exposure: Higher levels of combat exposure are present in Veterans with problematic alcohol use. Alcoholism in Veterans may, in some case, lead to domestic violence, declining physical and mental health, and even death.2

Prescription Drugs

Opioid pain medication is being prescribed to Veterans at alarming rates to treat physical injuries and illnesses, like migraines and chronic pain.

In 2009, 24% of Veterans were being prescribed opiates. The presence of a co-occurring mental health condition like PTSD (a mental health disorder that can result from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event5) increases the likelihood of Veterans receiving an opioid prescription.2 The number of Veterans addicted to painkillers, unfortunately, does not come as a surprise, as with opioids are one of the most addicting prescription drug available.2

Illicit Drugs

Marijuana is the primary illicit drug used by Veterans, although rates of marijuana use have decreased over the years.2 In fact, studies show that Veterans have lower rates of illicit drug use overall, compared to non-Veterans.6 Despite these lower rates, it is still important to recognize Veterans and substance use disorders, especially those that may be progressing.

Studies have found a connection between Veteran opioid use and subsequent heroin use. Specifically, researchers found a strong association between Veterans using prescription opioids for non-medical purposes (such as prescriptions not in the Veteran’s name or the use of opioids for the sole purpose of the feelings it causes in the body) and later heroin use.7

Symptoms of Veteran Substance Abuse and Addiction

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), identifies the following common symptoms of substance abuse:8

  • Taking the drug in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than intended.
  • A strong desire or unsuccessful efforts to control or cut down on drug use.
  • A significant amount of time spent in activities necessary to obtain the drug, use the drug, or recover from its effects.
  • Craving or a strong desire or urge to use the drug.
  • Recurrent drug use resulting in failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  • Continued drug use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or worsened by the effects of the drug.
  • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of the drug use.
  • Recurrent drug use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  • Drug use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely caused or worsened by drug use.
  • Tolerance, or need for increased amounts of the drug to achieve a desired effect or intoxication.
  • Withdrawal.

Impacts of Veteran Substance Abuse

In addition to substance use disorder, Veterans are also at an increased risk for:2

  • Other medical problems.
  • Psychiatric disorders.
  • Impairment at work or home.
  • Increased rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
  • Homelessness.

Approximately 70% of homeless Veterans have a substance abuse problem, making access to treatment even more difficult.9

Stressors associated with military service, in combination with substance abuse, specifically alcohol, increase the risk of domestic violence in the home.2, 10 If you or someone you love might be suffering from intimate partner violence, visit the VA for more information and help.

Research shows that Veterans who use drugs and alcohol to cope with military-related diseases, such as chronic pain, depression, or PTSD, are more likely to develop a substance use disorder and are at a significantly greater risk of suicide.5

Addiction Treatment for Veterans

Substance abuse and mental health concerns will not just disappear on their own: They require treatment and asking for help is one of the bravest things you can do. Fortunately, Veterans seeking treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders have a variety of options, including the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).11 From services within the VA to therapy and medications, there is hope.2

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a government agency offering tools, benefits, resources, and information to military Veterans. The VA offers a variety of services for both mental health and substance abuse needs. Some of their services include:12

  • Substance abuse treatment, such as:
    • Counseling.
    • Detox.
    • Medication assisted treatment, or MAT (such as buprenorphine or methadone).
    • Residential care.
  • Mental health treatment, such as:

You can use the VA’s online locator tool to find substance abuse programs. Alternatively, Veterans are also free to choose treatment options outside of the VA.

American Addiction Centers has specialized treatment programs designed specifically for Veterans. While all AAC facilities offer Veterans and first responder services, four of our facilities in TX, NV, MS and FL offer a dedicated, robust treatment program called The Rally Point: AAC.

You’ve been brave your entire career in the military, or your loved one has. We know that if you’re brave now, you can get the treatment you need and get on a path toward recovery.

Take initiative today to find the treatment you or your loved one deserve.

About American Addiction Centers

AAC’s Veteran services are available at all AAC facilities. Our dedicated, robust Veteran program, The Rally Point: AAC is offered at our 4 VA Centers of Excellence:

The Rally Point: AAC blends AAC’s medically informed, patient-centric approach to treatment with therapies that address co-occurring disorders that may affect military Veterans. Many of the staff involved in our programs for Veterans or come from military families. This helps them connect with the Veterans receiving treatment and help them move towards a life in recovery.

No Veteran should have to suffer in silence. There are several methods to help you find peace and start your life in recovery.