Veterans and Alcohol Use: Risks and Resources
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More than 40% of U.S. military veterans have a lifetime history of alcohol use disorder (AUD)—significantly higher than AUD in the general population.
Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition that ranges from mild to severe. It’s characterized by a craving for alcohol and an inability to stop or control alcohol use, even when it leads to serious consequences.
Drinking culture, PTSD, and barriers to treatment all play a role in the relationship between veterans and alcohol. But the good news is that there are more treatment options today than ever before, along with various support services for veterans. On this page, we’ll share resources and information for veterans struggling with AUD and their loved ones.
Table of Contents
Alcohol Use and Military Culture
According to the Department of Defense, more than 34% of service members binge drink, in comparison to about 26% of adults in the United States.1 Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks on the same occasion for men, and four or more drinks on the same occasion for women. About 9.4% drink heavily (binge drinking on at least one or two days weekly), and 6.2% experience one or more serious consequences related to drinking.2
So, heavy drinking and AUD are common among military personnel, despite policies meant to limit alcohol use. These policies aren’t consistently enforced, and there has long been a culture of alcohol in the military. Service members use alcohol for stress release, recreation, and socializing. Many drink to cope with the boredom, isolation, and loneliness of military life.
Over time, heavy drinking is brain-changing and habit-forming.3 People who drink heavily in the military often continue drinking after leaving active duty. AUD may become more severe due to issues like PTSD and mental health disorders, chronic pain, or difficulty readjusting to civilian life.
Statistics on Veterans and Alcohol Use
Here are some key statistics on veterans and alcohol:
- 11% of veterans presenting for first-time care within the VA health system meet diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder.4
- From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 1 in 10 returning veterans seen in the VA have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.5
- 65% of veterans who enter a treatment program report alcohol as the substance they misuse most frequently—almost double that of the general population.6
- 17% of military personnel drink heavily and 45% binge drink. For those with high levels of combat exposure, these numbers increase to 26.8% for heavy drinking and 54.8% for binge drinking.7
- Studies show that among veterans, alcohol use increases risks for interpersonal violence, health problems, and mortality.8
Alcohol Use and PTSD
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can develop after experiencing a frightening, shocking, or dangerous event. It’s characterized by extreme anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, irritability, isolation, and depression. Any traumatic event can cause PTSD, but it’s especially common among combat veterans.
The number of veterans with PTSD varies by service era. It’s estimated that about 30% of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. About 12% of Gulf War veterans and 11 to 20% of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans have PTSD in a given year. This is much higher than the rate of PTSD in the general population, which is approximately 7 to 8%.9
Combat veterans, whether they have PTSD or not, are more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse. But because PTSD is linked to alcohol use disorder (and other substance use disorders), veterans with PTSD are at even greater risk for alcohol use disorder. People may use substances like alcohol to cope with PTSD symptoms, avoid negative thoughts and emotions, and numb themselves.
According to the National Center for PTSD, 60 to 80% of Vietnam veterans seeking care for PTSD also show problem drinking behaviors.10 And almost 1 out of every 3 veterans seeking treatment for substance use disorder also has PTSD.11
For a short time, alcohol can ease the negative side effects of PTSD. But once the alcohol wears off, people are left feeling even worse than before. This can lead people to drink more often and in greater quantities, trapping them in a vicious cycle. And the combination of PTSD and alcohol abuse is associated with higher rates of violent behavior12 and suicide.13
Other Common Substance Use Issues Among Veterans
Alcohol is the most prevalent form of substance use disorder among veterans, but other common substance use issues include:
- Opioids- Both heroin use and the misuse of prescription painkillers are on the rise among veterans.14 In 2019, about 10% of veterans aged 18-25 and 3% of veterans 26 and older misused opioids. This is likely linked to opioids being prescribed to veterans at higher rates to treat issues like migraine headaches and chronic pain.15
- Cocaine- Among veterans admitted to treatment centers for illicit drug use, cocaine is the second most-used substance (just over 6%) behind heroin (10.7%).16 About 9,000 veterans aged 18-25 (3.4%) and 123,000 veterans 26 or older (0.6%) use cocaine.17
- Marijuana- In the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 19% of veterans aged 18-25 and 9% of veterans 26 and older reported marijuana use in the past month.18 Of course, marijuana isn’t as harmful as alcohol and other drugs, and it’s being explored as a potential treatment for PTSD. However, some studies link marijuana use to more severe PTSD symptoms, violent behavior, and alcohol and drug use.19
- Tobacco- Veterans are more likely to use tobacco products than non-veterans in almost all age groups, with about 30% reporting use.20 The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has spent an estimated $2.7 billion on smoking-related prescription drugs, ambulatory care, hospitalization, and home health care. As a result, the VHA has recently made efforts to increase access to tobacco cessation treatment options.21
Barriers To Treatment For Veterans
Barriers to treatment for veterans with AUD may include:
- Shame or embarrassment about addiction
- The belief that seeking help is a sign of weakness
- Long wait times for services
- Concerns about losing a job
- Financial difficulties and gaps in insurance coverage
- Being unaware of or not understanding available treatment options
- Difficulty accessing services due to location, including homelessness
To address some of these obstacles, the Department of Defense and the VA have increased outreach programs to help veterans in remote locations access services, hired more mental health providers, and expanded the availability of psychological health programs for veterans.
Supportive friends and family members can also help veterans overcome barriers to treatment. If your loved one is abusing alcohol, compassionately hold them accountable and encourage them to seek treatment without criticizing or shaming. Educate yourself on addiction and treatment, be patient, and remember to take care of yourself too.
Support Services For Veterans
What the VA Offers
The VA offers a variety of treatment services for veterans, including:
- VA mental health support (including PTSD treatment programs)
- Veterans Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program
- VA telehealth services
- SAMHSA virtual recovery resources
Does The VA Classify Alcoholism as a Disability?
The VA doesn’t classify alcohol use disorder on its own as a disability, but it is classified as a secondary service-connected condition. That means if alcohol dependence was caused by another service-connected condition, like PTSD, veterans can claim disability benefits for alcoholism. If the alcohol use then causes a physical condition, like cirrhosis, then the veteran can receive compensation for that condition.
When applying for disability for alcohol use disorder, veterans can provide medical records that show (1) a history of excessive alcohol use that started during active duty or shortly after discharge and (2) a diagnosis for a psychological condition that could be causing the alcohol use, with symptoms that became apparent in service or soon after discharge. This type of evidence can help show that struggles with alcohol stem from a service-connected psychological condition.
With modern science, medicine, and technology, there are more treatment options available than ever before—giving people the opportunity to find an option that meets their unique needs and preferences.
Inpatient and Outpatient Rehab
Alcohol rehab for veterans can be delivered through either inpatient or outpatient programs. Inpatient rehab involves living in the safe, highly structured environment of a treatment facility for 30 days or longer. Patients learn healthier skills and behaviors while adjusting to sober living.
Outpatient rehab is a more affordable, flexible alternative. Patients can continue living at home and working their jobs while receiving medical and counseling support several times per week.
In support group meetings, people share similar experiences and offer encouragement to one another while following guiding principles for recovery and self-improvement. Alcohol Anonymous (AA) is the most well-known support group option, but alternatives include SMART and LifeRing.
Psychological therapy can help treat issues at the root of problem drinking, like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. One common strategy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Other techniques that help people process traumatic experiences include cognitive processing therapy (CPT), prolonged exposure (PE), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
With online programs, or telemedicine, you can cut back or quit drinking from the comfort of home. Online treatment puts the resources and support you need for recovery right at your fingertips. The convenience and affordability of telemedicine can help people stick with recovery long-term.
Ria Health provides weekly check-ins with a recovery coach, support group meetings, medications to reduce alcohol cravings, and digital tools to track your progress—all delivered 100% virtually. Our compassionate team of experts will support you through every obstacle and help you celebrate every success on the path to recovery.
Get started with Ria Health’s online alcohol treatment program today