If you’re a veteran, then chances are you know someone who served with you who struggles with drug abuse now. Maybe it’s even yourself. Over half a million vets sought treatment for drug abuse and related problems in 2017 alone.

Vets are more likely to abuse alcohol or binge drink than civilians. 10% of all vets who return from Iraq or Afghanistan report drug abuse problems.

That’s not to mention rising opioid abuse among vets. The number of vets with an opioid use disorder doubled between 2002 and 2009.

And shockingly, the number of opioid prescriptions written by Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors has quadrupled.

The more you know about substance abuse in veterans, the better you can understand and take care of yourself, especially if you’re at risk or have a problem already.

Read ahead to learn about the signs and symptoms of drug abuse in veterans and more:

How Do Veterans Develop Substance Abuse?

Why is it more common for vets to have problems with drug abuse? The reasons are complicated, but they include:

  • Social pressure to drink while in the military
  • Chronic pain leading to prescription drug abuse
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder from military service
  • Mental changes due to brain injury during service
  • Traumatic childhood or early adulthood experiences before service

Here’s a closer look at each one:

Drinking Culture in the Military

Military life involves letting go of control over your life. Many aspects of life are controlled for you beginning in basic training, including where you live, where you work, and even how you cut your hair.

It’s common for people in the military to respond to that lack of control by drinking. There’s a strong binge drinking culture in the military. One-third of all service members report binge drinking.

This tendency can carry on after military life ends. Veterans are more likely to use alcohol heavily, and 65% of all veterans entering treatment say that alcohol is the substance they misuse.

Veterans and Chronic Pain

The military clearly has a problem with chronic pain, which has lead to VA doctors overprescribing opioids. These potent pain drugs can cause addiction even if you use them as directed.

Veterans Affairs reports that 66% of veterans report chronic pain every quarter, and vets are 40% more likely to experience severe pain than civilians.

Dealing with the pain epidemic led VA doctors to prescribe opioids at a rate four times higher than the general population.

At the same time, opioid use disorder in veterans more than doubled between 2002 and 2009.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Veterans

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) happens when you experience a traumatic event and it continues to affect your emotions, moods, health, and behaviors months or years later.

Vets have PTSD at a higher rate than the rest of the population. In fact, 20% of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom experience PTSD every year.

PTSD is linked to a higher risk of drug abuse—over 20% of vets with PTSD have substance abuse disorder.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Substance Abuse

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a syndrome that happens after an injury that causes brain damage.

Veterans and active service members are at a higher risk for developing TBI than the general population.

It’s hard to predict the exact effects of TBI on a veteran because it depends on the part of the brain that is damaged. However, substance abuse occurs more often in people with TBI, including vets.

Interpersonal Trauma and Veterans

It’s uncertain why, but veterans are more likely to have interpersonal trauma than civilians, and this trauma can make you more vulnerable to drug abuse and other mental health issues.

This kind of trauma can be the result of damaging events when you are a child or young adult, including physical or sexual abuse. It can also include events like the death of a loved one, a breakup, or events that occur while in the military (such as sexual abuse).

It’s possible that the link exists because people join the military to get away from traumatizing home lives, but end up abusing substances to deal with stress and depression.

Statistics on Substance Abuse Among Veterans

According to a 2017 review by the Journal of Substance Abuse Rehabilitation, the statistics on veteran substance abuse include:

  • 4% of vets report using illicit drugs every month
  • 4.5% of young vets are long-term opioid users
  • 5% of vets report a drug use disorder
  • 11% of vets report an alcohol abuse disorder
  • 7.5% of vets report heavy alcohol use
  • More male vets abuse drugs than female vets
  • Vets with PTSD are more likely to get prescribed opioids and more likely to abuse them than those who don’t
  • Vets with combat exposure are more likely to abuse drugs than vets who didn’t see combat

What Types of Substances Do Veterans Abuse?

From alcohol to opioids to cocaine, the veteran community is gripped by the same drugs that the rest of the United States is fighting.

However, there are a few drugs that vets are more likely to abuse than civilians. They include:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Prescription opioids

Here’s a closer look at each one:


Most substance abuse disorders in the military are the result of alcohol abuse.

That could be the result of an alcohol-heavy culture. Over 56% of veterans report drinking every month, while only 50% of civilians drink at the same rate.

Abusing alcohol causes permanent damage to your body. Overdose or withdrawal can cause:

  • Coma
  • Delirium
  • Death
  • Seizures
  • Tremors


Nicotine isn’t an illicit drug, but it’s still the most abused drug by veterans. Half of all vets smoke cigarettes, a figure that’s higher among vets than it is among civilians.

There’s a public perception that nicotine is a safe vice because it’s legal and easy to get, but that’s not true. 50% of all cancer deaths among vets are the result of smoking nicotine.

Smoking nicotine puts you at higher risk for heart disease, stroke, and cancer. It’s also highly addictive despite being easy to get over the counter.

Prescription Opioids

A huge portion of veteran drug abuse falls into the category of prescription opioid abuse. Those drugs include:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Tramadol

The problem with these drugs is that their side effects can be life-threatening if they’re abused. Overdosing on opioids causes problems such as:

  • Coma
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Stopped breathing
  • Trouble breathing

Without treatment, opioid overdose causes death. In 2016, 21 out of 100,000 veterans died from an opioid overdose, a rate that’s higher than the national average.

Trauma and Substance Abuse: How PTSD Plays a Role in Veterans’ Lives

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects up to 20% of veterans in a given year.

Of those, 20% have substance abuse disorders.

What Causes PTSD?

PTSD happens when you experience a traumatic event—for a veteran, this could be a combat event or witnessing a death.

For some reason, some people’s brains don’t process traumatic events correctly. Instead of storing them away, they keep reliving them even after the event is over. It isn’t known why this happens, but it can be very distressing.

The Symptoms of PTSD

The signs of PTSD include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional detachment
  • Flashbacks
  • Heightened fight-or-flight response
  • Unwanted memories

Why Does PTSD Increase the Risk of Drug Abuse?

We don’t know exactly why PTSD increases the risk of drug abuse. But it’s probably because PTSD is distressing and vets turn to drugs to cope.

There’s also some evidence that PTSD changes the pathways in your brain that deal with reward and motivation. These are the same pathways that affect addiction, so there could be a link.

Treatment Options for Veterans: How and Where They Can Get Help

If you’re a veteran struggling with substance abuse, then you should know there’s help available—and now is the best time to start recovery.

Here’s where to get treatment as a vet:


If you’re physically dependent on a drug, then any treatment center will require you to go to detox first.

Detox includes symptom management and monitoring. This can include supplemental fluids, seizure management, and pain management.

In some cases, it includes medication-assisted treatment, which is the use of drugs to prevent cravings in substance use disorders. This treatment is available for vets with alcohol or opioid use disorder.

Treatment Centers

Private treatment centers are the top source of addiction help for vets. The best recovery options are those that offer extended stays—research shows that treatment has the best outcomes when you stay at least 90 days.

Rehab centers offer a mix of:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Also known as CBT, this kind of therapy gives you the tools to recognize behaviors and thoughts that lead to drug use—so you can stop.
  • Daily check-ins: Regular check-ins and drug tests keep you accountable while in treatment.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy: DBT is a form of therapy that teaches mindfulness. This can be very helpful for vets who have substance abuse disorders along with PTSD, since DBT helps you overcome traumatic memories.
  • Group therapy: Connecting with others who have parallel experiences can be deeply healing. Group therapy helps you deal with substance abuse by talking to others who have the same struggle.
  • Symptom management: Some people continue to have symptoms of withdrawal after detox ends. If that’s the case, then you can receive basic symptom management in rehab in some cases.

How Do Vets Pay for the Cost of Treatment?

It’s common to delay treatment because you’re worried about how you’re going to pay for it. But there’s no reason to wait—resources are available to help pay for the cost of treatment.

Depending on the private rehab center in question, your payment options may include:

  • Private insurance: If you have private insurance through an employer or a spouse, then you may be able to get your treatment funded through your plan. Common private insurance plans include UnitedHealthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
  • VA insurance: VA health benefits are available through the Veterans Affairs office. You can have VA insurance in combination with Medicaid, Medicare, or TRICARE insurance, all of which are government funded.

To get treatment paid through insurance, either private or VA, you’ll need to have a doctor diagnose your substance abuse disorder and recommend treatment.

Your first step is to schedule an appointment with your doctor, who might refer you for treatment right away, or might refer you to a psychiatrist first. Your doctor will let you know what to expect from the process and when you can start treatment. 

Not all treatment centers accept insurance—some only accept cash payments. Talk to the center you’re considering to learn more about your options. 

Don’t wait to get treatment when there’s so much help available for vets with substance abuse disorders! Call or chat with a Rehab Adviser today to learn about your treatment options. 


  1. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD and substance abuse in veterans
  2. Veterans of Foreign Wars: Substance abuse stats are sobering
  3. National Center for Bioinformatics: Substance use disorders in military veterans 
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Substance abuse and military life 
  5. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: How common is PTSD in veterans?

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