Enlisted and Addicted: A Comprehensive Guide for Military Personnel and Their Families

For those who have become enlisted in the military or are family members of soldiers, there is a risk of drug and alcohol addiction. The complexity of helping someone who may also be experiencing PTSD makes it more challenging.

How do you support someone even though you don't understand what they've been through? There are drug and alcohol related incidents in the military for the same reasons as any other life situation. However, the pressure of the military can cause a greater risk for a veteran's alcohol abuse or drug problems.

Drug use in the military isn't as prevalent as that of civilians when it comes to illegal drug use. They do make up for it with heavy drinking, smoking, and prescription drug abuse however.

This guide was designed to help the enlisted and addicted as well as for their families.

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Why People in the Military Are Susceptible to Addiction

Military service and drug use or alcohol abuse is prevalent largely because of the trauma they go through.

People in the military are on edge waiting for when they might be called to duty.

They don't know where they'll be sent and it's often short notice. Military have reported being bored while waiting to be deployed as well.

Military alcohol abuse statistics tell us that a high percentage of military individuals miss their loved ones.

For soldiers that become traumatized during war time, they may numb the feelings instead of dealing with the painful event. The situation calls on a person to be extremely strong which means masking their feelings.

Before policies were set in place, anyone on active duty was allowed to consume alcohol even if they weren't of age. This changed in the 1980's due to groups like MADD putting pressure on Congress to adjust the laws.

Now, any military personnel has to adopt the laws based on the state their military based is in. The exception is if a base is located within 50 miles of Canada or Mexico. Their drinking ages are lower and if the commander of that based sees fit, their personnel can drink. The navy followed suit.

The Marine Corps however allows 18 year olds to drink if they are situated in a country that allows them to. As of 2012, the Marine Corps did put a limit for on-duty drinking standards.

With all enlisted soldiers, there are breathalyzers that are randomly administered. Laws are strict with the punishment matching the amount of alcohol consumed. The Navy, Air Force, and Army enforces drinking under a legal limit of 0.05. If the limit is higher, it can lead to dishonorable discharge.

A dismissal from the government are on the soldier's permanent record. A few beers could ruin someone's career and reputation.

Changes in military policy for drug abuse was put in place after the psychedelic experiences of the 1960s. During the US/Vietnam War Era, hallucinogens were heavily used by soldiers.

In 1980, a military zero tolerance drug policy was put in place. They did this for good reason as soldiers were abusing substances in unsanitary ways, sometimes leading to hepatitis C (HCV). Studies found that vets had a hard time readjusting to life back home due to the HCV infection. It lead to homelessness and mental illness in some cases.

Ironically, prescription opioids are legal and widely used in the military and among veterans. OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet are 'substances' widely abused by military and veterans. It's a challenge because soldiers are legitimately in need of pain killers or mood altering drugs.

Soldiers will often abuse these legal drugs, mix them with alcohol, and or Red Bell to keep up with the army/navy or military lifestyle. While the military has put a stop to use of illegal drugs in the military, there is still prescription medication addiction.

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Symptoms of Veterans and Substance Abuse

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) surveyed veterans and found that 7.1% of them developed substance use disorder.

Veterans and substance abuse can be attributed to a variety of things. During their deployment or service, they may have started abusing substances.

With post-traumatic stress disorder potential, they become at risk of abusing substances.

There are one in four veterans that went to Iraq and Afghanistan who reported symptoms closely related to mental health disorders. One in six veterans dealt with some of the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

These symptoms included;

  • Intrusive thoughts.
  • Vivid memories of traumatic events.
  • Constantly feeling alert.
  • Chronic tension.
  • General anxiety and depression that influences their lives in a negative way.

Other risk factors of addiction in veterans include insomnia or disruptions in sleeping patterns. They may have suffered traumatic brain injuries or suffer from relationship problems. The lifestyle of a soldier has many supporting factors that can easily cause alcohol or drug addiction.

The History of Veterans and Substance Abuse

There may be soldiers that have seen or experienced traumatic events. If you look at drug use in the military during the Vietnam War, it included heroin. Not only was it easy to get but the trauma vets suffered forced them to survive through numbing themselves.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has found that alcohol and drug abuse is strongly connected with traumatic events. Substance abuse in the military, navy, and marines often have a lot to do with events that have caused deep fear in a person.

A high percentage of veterans abuse alcohol and drugs from seeing other die around them or feeling as though they narrowly escaped death themselves.

Many studies have found that there is a strong connection between suicide, depression and substance abuse in veterans. One of the studies included 600 veterans coming home from either Afghanistan or Iraq.

They found 39% of veterans were screened positive for alcohol abuse potential while 3% were found likely to abuse drugs. Within this group of 600 veterans, it was also found that 14% of them would likely suffer PSTD.

An even bigger study with nearly 700,000 active military, navy, and marine personnel found a connection to substance use and depression. There has been an increase of suicide in all US military services but in particular, among the US Army and National Guard.

The military has seen a great increase of pain reliever prescriptions, reaching 4 million in 2009. The trend is believed to have a lot to do with combat-related injuries and muscles strain from carrying around heavy items.

The military is the largest single purchaser of pharmaceuticals in the US. The Austin-American Statesman investigation in 2012 found that the Department of Defense has greatly increased their spending for prescription drugs. In 2002, they were spending $3 billion on prescription medication. As of 2011, this had increase by 123% to $6.8 billion.

After the attacks on September 11th, the military spent nearly $3 billion on antidepressants alone. In 2013, data showed an increase of patients treated by the Veterans association was up to 29%. Opiate prescriptions had increased by 259%.

Prescription drugs military statistics show that in the last decade, 51,000 US soldiers were hurt during operations. A study about opioid abuse that involves 2597 active soldiers stated that 44% experiences long-term chronic pain. This was a total of 1130 soldiers. Over half of them experienced constant, daily pain.

The Department of Defense (DoD) is responsible for ensuring that service members in the Marine Corps, Army, Navy, and Military are able to effectively defend the US.

In 2008, they sent out a report on Health-Related Behaviors among active duty military personnel. This laid out the problems associated with pain reliever abuse, tranquilizers, sedatives, and stimulants.

The DoD drug testing program screens for alcohol and drugs. They are the source of consequences military personnel will have to deal with if they're caught with illegal substances of risky abuse of substances.

The DoD is working to stop the stigma connected with drug and mental health problems. Military Pathways created an extensive infographic that's available online to help enlisted members figure out if they have a drinking problem. They can learn where to get 12-step program resources and other help they might need.

Alcohol Abuse in the Military

There is some controversy about how prevalent binge drinking and alcohol abuse is in the military. Reports by the Institute of Medicine labeled alcohol abuse as a public health crisis.

The military has a reputation of being alcohol-soaked that is most prevalent on the weekends.

They will be done in apartments of non-commissioned officers. Military personnel feel pressure to party hard and guzzle beer to demonstrate their manhood.

In military towns, an officer who gets promoted is supposed to pick up the bar tab for officers below them. Hotel rooms are packed with service members that aren't of legal age.

Men and women wake up with hangovers and very little memory of what happened the night before. Camaraderie is believed to be built by buying copious amounts of alcohol.

All this preps military personnel in the war zone to turn to alcohol. It's prohibited but is concealed in mouthwash bottles. It's often given to troops after battle as a reward.

Alcohol abuse in the military statistics show that heavy alcohol use is among the age group of 18-25 year olds. This does vary between services branches and gender. Young males in the Marine Corps drink the most at 38.6%. In the Air Force, the rate is 2.5%. In the Navy, alcohol consumption is 31.8%.

Military DUI statistics show that the highest levels of negative effects from drinking affect the lower pay grades in the military. They are usually the youngest enlisted personnel with no college education. These negative effects from drinking include missing time from duty due to being arrest from drinking and driving. In 2002, over 20% of junior enlisted service members experiences consequences from alcohol-related events.

Marine Corps alcohol abuse statistics are high on the list of personnel that binge drink. Among 3,350 Marine Corps, over 50% reported heavy drinking in the past 30 days.

Technically, military personnel don't have to drink. There is a hidden pressure to bond with other personnel in this way however. 'Dining-in' is a traditional former dinner for members where toasts are a necessary part of it.

There is also something called a 'mess night' which is somewhat like a dining-in event. One soldier spoke of these events where everyone was ordered to drink round and round of heavy alcohol.

While associations like MADD are working hard to stop pressure of alcohol use in the military, like being in any group, there is a sense of pressure to fit in.

How Family Members are Affected by Military Addiction

When enlisted military personnel come home, they may seem quite different. Depending on what the soldier went through, they may just find it challenging to go back to normal life. For some however, they have been deeply affected mentally and addiction may have developed.

Military Addiction and Families

Family members welcoming soldiers home may have a hard time understanding what their loved one went through. It's important to give them support and allow them the space to manage their emotions.

Equally as important is to pay attention to their patterns. Are they staying up late? Drinking a lot or maybe going away for hours without telling anyone where they were.

PSTD or substance addiction symptoms are usually quite obvious. It will take some time for your loved one to integrate back into society. If they are completely withdrawn and exhibiting the main issues of PSTD, substance addiction, or both, a family intervention may be necessary.

The co-occurring disorder of PSTD and addiction in the military can cause a variety of symptoms. Regardless of whether they've completed their time in combat or are still active, substance addiction can ruin lives of families.

  • A change in sleeping patterns.
  • They appear to be breathing slower.
  • They will often have nausea.
  • Coordination is poor.
  • You may notice a growing tolerance to the substance they're using regularly.
  • They are always tired.
  • They don't want to be around people.
  • They have mood swings.
  • They become confused.
  • They have a hard time making decisions and tend to not make the right choices.

It's important to not play silent and become a co-dependant. An intervention for a military member may feel like the wrong thing to do after all they've been through but it doesn't help to keep silent. Children are affected and become a part of the illness too.

It's important to be aware of behaviors they're exhibiting. Learn why enlisted military personnel suffer from PSTD and what they're going through. Be open and let them know that you support them. The trauma they experienced manifests into intense mood swings. They may lash out at family or they may not talk at all.

It's important to encourage them to get help. Offer them support. The longer the family or loved one waits, the deeper the addiction gets. They become used to abusing substances while at home, making it more difficult to recover from addiction.

It is recommended that the addicted veteran or active military person seek professional treatment, you can also do your part. By understanding PSTD and substance abuse, you can relate better to what your loved one is going through.

Talk openly about your feelings but understand that they may not want to talk. Take the time to help them get to the necessary support group meetings they need. Encourage them to exercise and create a healthy and harmonious environment for them.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a lot of resources to offer veterans and their families. There are programs that help veterans find jobs that are well-suited for soldiers.

There is federally qualified health centers that help vets with their addiction and the behaviors that have materialized from their experience. These services don't require payment and veterans don't have to have a certain kind of insurance to take part.

Research has found that veterans will respond to treatment far better if their family takes part. Having loved ones attend sessions and the therapeutic exercises help families bond. The veteran doesn't feel so alone in their battle.

There are therapists who have been trained in marriage and family counselling. They can help families and veterans build the tools to communicate properly. Knowing how and when to bring up substance abuse or PTSD allows voices to be heard without imposing hardship on other's emotions.

It's important to show love and patience. Inform yourself and take part in the healing journey. The first three months of abstinence will take a lot of support on your part. Encouraging your loved one, offering them love, and making them accountable will help their recovery success.

Insurance Coverage for Drug Rehab - Who Pays?

There are many health insurance providers throughout the US that offers health insurance for enlisted military personnel, veterans, and those in active duty. As health insurance has recognized that drug and alcohol abuse is so prevalent, they have extended insurance to rehab and treatment services.

The military uses TRICARE which has three different options. TRICARE Prime, Standard, and Extra. It's part of the Military Health System that works underneath the Department of Defense.

The Military Health System offers care to veterans and active-duty personal and their family members. The primary goal of the system is to keep military personnel healthy so they can carry out missions. It's also to provide health care during wartime.

Once the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became active in 2010, it became easier for veterans to get full coverage. There is more help for military, retirees, veterans, and their dependents. As drug and alcohol addiction is so prevalent, drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers are aligning themselves to better help military personnel.

Services like detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, and therapy are more easily accessible. Health insurance providers are extending their care options also.

The Relationship of PTSD and Substance Abuse

Veterans will experience many challenges back home which is partly why there is military substance abuse programs. They may have thought the hardest part of their experience was fighting for their country. There are many facets to coming home for a soldier and they can lead to substance abuse.

When veterans or active-duty service members come home from combat, they have a hard time fitting back into society. On top of acclimatizing back to normal life, they are managing psychological and emotional trauma from war experiences.

Many veterans won't know what their options are for getting the help they need. They will self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. It's been found that someone with PTSD is more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder.

Over 20% of veterans who have PTSD will also have substance use disorder. Treatment for co-occurring disorders like this become complex as there are two illnesses to manage. War veterans that have PTSD will often binge drink to numb the memories of trauma in combat.

There are 1 in 3 veterans seeking treatment for substance abuse that also suffer from PTSD. Over the past decade, 1 in 10 returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan developed problems with drug or alcohol.

Normal day to day tasks and responsibilities can cause stress for military personnel with PSTD. They may seem uncomfortable while spending time with friends and family.

They may abandon personal goals or hobbies. Drugs and alcohol may become their main focus on life. It's important to see some of the signs someone with PSTD might be exhibiting.

  • Traumatic memories that occur over and over again.
  • Constant nightmares.
  • Vivid accounts of an event that can be invoked through hearing, seeing, or smelling something. This means the veteran never knows when they will have a memory.
  • They will avoid people, places, and things that might trigger disturbing memories. This may often result in total isolation or cause a lot of inconvenience for loved ones.
  • They feel on edge constantly. They may seem alert all the time.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • They have a hard time concentrating.
  • They may be socially awkward.

Veterans Affairs (VA) offers residential rehabilitation treatment programs and are seen as an essential part of caring for vets with mental health issues and/or substance use disorder. It has generally been seen as a valuable option for patients who need specialized care.

There are 63 substance abuse disorder Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs. Additionally, there are 34 Mental Health Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs with a substance abuse sector.

These programs offer:

  • Evidence-based individual and group therapy.
  • Therapy that addresses co-occurring mental health conditions and substance use disorder.
  • Addressing and helping patients to manage homelessness and unemployment.

The Veterans Affairs pay over $200 million for these residential programs. Admissions are constantly growing. Unfortunately, there is the potential that military personnel will have to wait to get the treatment they need. This is why some will find their own means of inpatient or outpatient therapy.

Based on evidence, most people will see an improvement of both PTSD and substance abuse disorder when they get treatment that helps both conditions. This includes;

  • Individual or group cognitive behavioral treatments.
  • Specific treatment for PTSD. This includes cognitive processing therapy or prolonged exposure.
  • Family or spousal therapy so loved ones can talk through their own feelings and also understand what is happening to the soldier with PTSD.
  • Medications to help with PTSD if necessary. Dealing with a co-occurring disorder can be overwhelming, sometimes temporary medication is necessary.
Veterans and Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol & Combat Veterans

Heavy drinking has long been a problem in military culture but it has seen a spike since deploying troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

JAMA did a study on 88,000 combat veterans and found that up to 15% of them were tested positively for alcohol problems. For those who experienced combat, there were 53% of veterans that engaged in binge drinking.

The Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that soldiers in life-threatening situations and “atrocities” were connected to positive alcohol abuse screening. This particular study surveyed 1,120 recently deployed military personnel. There were 25% of the participants that tested positive for dangerous levels of alcohol. There was 12% of the individuals that showed behavioral problems that stemmed from their alcohol consumption.

Modern Solutions for the Enlisted and Addicted

To change the stigma related to addiction, studies have opened up modern methods to re-educate people. There is new information that teaches military personnel to avoid risky behaviors that can lead to addiction.

For example, binge drinking. It's common among the youth in the military and can lead to alcohol use disorders. By introducing how many drinks in a sitting, day, or week that indicates a problem, it allows soldiers to better monitor their behaviors.

Detecting a drinking or drug abuse problem early, it reduces the negative outcome. Also, when family members of military who abuse substances know what to look for, they can intervene.

Further strategies include enforcing minimum purchase age laws. Alcohol taxes have been raised and there's been a reduction in drink specials. Retailers have also become liable for damage based on sales, making them more accountable. This means that a bar is less likely to break the law to sell a minor liquor.

Taking the Help that Is Available

For military personnel, they have been specifically trained to be mentally and physically tough. They aren't immune to the basic human emotions no matter how effective they are during war time.

It is challenging for military to admit they may have weaknesses which is sadly what the stigma is around substance abuse. There is a lot of help for veterans and active-duty soldiers but it takes a lot for them to seek help.

Family members can bring the problems to light and support them through the challenges. Support groups and individual therapy can help bring the painful experiences to light to a soldier can lead a normal life again.

The first step will be the hardest but it leads to the possibility of substance abuse recovery as well as reducing or eliminating symptoms of PTSD.

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