Addiction Amongst Active Duty Military & Veterans

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The stresses of military life can take their toll on the brave men and women that defend the United States. There is a zero-tolerance policy for drugs while enlisted in the US military, but this does not stop alcohol dependency and rampant tobacco use. Once out of the service, addiction spikes. In fact, over one in ten veterans has a substance abuse disorder. What causes these numbers? What factors drive military personnel to drug and alcohol abuse?

Zero Tolerance Drug Policy

As of 2020, the United States military has a zero-tolerance policy concerning the use of illicit drugs. Those found with illicit drugs are immediately given a dishonorable discharge and could possibly face legal charges, with no exceptions in respect to rank. Both selling and using drugs are considered punishable offenses.

Even with this policy, members of the service still drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Some even get their hands on illicit drugs despite the risk of being caught with a random drug test.

Risk Factors

Being in the military can put an individual more at risk of substance abuse due to specific types of military service. These factors and types of services performed in the military can push a person to be more at risk for addiction.

Experience in Combat

Active duty military presence in a combat zone leads to some of the strongest reasons for substance abuse. If an individual is sent to a combat zone multiple times within the same deployment or separate ones, their risk goes up. This is because the things they experience within an active combat zone can increase their trauma and distress. Studies have found that soldiers on their third round of deployment use more medication to deal with work-related stress than soldiers on first or second deployments.

Military Culture

Being part of the culture and community of the military is important for many soldiers as they long to belong to something greater than themselves. A major part of military culture is drinking alcohol, especially in social situations. Alcohol is readily available on the majority of military bases, sometimes at a discount.

Drinking is typically used to relax after a day at work to cope with the stress of military life with fellow soldiers. However, alcohol is also commonly consumed at celebrations, on a field day, or at the end of a workweek. Some even drink recreationally when work is slow to kill boredom. Many soldiers feel pressured to drink by peers, especially as a way to fit in. Over time this can become a dangerous practice as the amount of alcohol must increase to take any effect.

Psychological Trauma

After their time in the military is over and active military individuals become members of the civilian population, many still deal with the scars that military life gave them. This could be from witnessing death, war crimes, explosions, killing other people, and more.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and depression are common amongst veterans of the US military. Veterans are five times more likely to have depression than civilians who have never served.

Substance abuse is a common coping mechanism for these conditions. Close to 25% of active-duty military personnel have symptoms of a mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. The organization also states that the military population is fifteen times more likely to have PTSD than the civilian population.

Substance Statistics Amongst the Military

Illicit Drugs

A self-reported survey done in 2015 by the Health-Related Behaviors Survey found that lower levels of military personnel use illicit drugs. It should be noted that the response rate of the survey was 8.6% since it was self-reported. Veterans are more likely to use marijuana after discharge.

However, some other illicit drugs were of concern. According to a government report, over 10% of admissions by veterans to treatment centers were for heroin (10.7%) and cocaine (6%).

Prescription Drugs

According to the same survey, more than 4% of active-duty military personnel reported abusing one or more prescription drugs. The true numbers may be higher, as 3.8 million pain prescription medications were written in 2009 by military doctors.

From 2009 to 2015, this number decreased but is still high enough for concern. Prescription drug abuse was found to be highest in the army. Veterans have also reported abusing prescription medication, with 21% of overdose rates of veterans in 2016 being from opioids.


Smoking tobacco is quite common in the military, with 11% of active-duty soldiers smoking daily in 2015. 30% of veterans have reported smoking tobacco. The high number of military individuals who smoke has caused spikes in the cases of coronary heart disease amongst veterans compared to civilians.


Alcoholism is the most common substance abuse disorder amongst military personnel. A big risk factor of this is that most members of the services are young males, who are already at a higher risk for alcohol abuse. Binge drinking has been found to be higher among active-duty soldiers, at a staggering 30%.

This means that almost one in three members of the US military is a binge drinker. Veterans are more likely to use alcohol compared to non-veterans, with use being at 56.6% per month, according to a 2017 study.

Addiction is unfortunately a huge part of military life, during and after one’s service. Active duty military personnel have been found to be using alcohol and tobacco, misusing prescription medications, and sometimes consuming illicit drugs. Veterans are more likely than civilians to have a substance abuse disorder due to the trauma and stress of their previous military careers. Risk factors that place members of the military in the way of addiction include psychological distress, combat experience, and military culture. Addiction can be difficult to deal with, especially with the extra stressors of military life. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is necessary if you want to live the life you are meant to live. At Northstar Transitions, you can receive world-class treatment to help you overcome your addiction. You don’t have to go through this alone. Contact Northstar at (303) 558-6400.