Substance Use Among US Military Branches

in Addiction
Morgan Metzger
Published Feb 26, 2021
us military branches

The stress of deployment and returning home after serving in the military presents risks related to developing substance use disorder (SUD) across several US military branches. Unfortunately, zero-tolerance policies, lack of confidentiality, and mandatory random drug testing that might deter substance use can add to the stigma behind addiction and discourage many who need treatment from seeking it. By creating a space, to be honest about substance use among the military population, society can reduce the stigma about addiction and military culture and encourage individuals to seek the help they need.

Substance Use Among Active Duty and Reserve Duty

Substance use is prevalent among multiple branches of the military. The Department of Defense’s (DoD) services have an active-duty component and reserve component. The active-duty component includes personnel from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The reserve component includes personnel from the Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Air Force National Guard, and Air Force Reserve.

The most comprehensive data on substance use in the active-duty component come from ten DoD Surveys of Health Related Behaviors among Military Personnel conducted from 1980 to 2008. Heavy alcohol use (defined as fifteen drinks or more per week for men, eight drinks or more per week for women) was prevalent amongst 21% of active-duty military personnel in 1980. It fluctuated throughout the years, but in 2008 it was at 20%. Binge drinking (five or more drinks per occasion for men, four or more for women, at least once a month) was prevalent amongst 35% of active-duty military personnel in 1998 and rose to 47% in 2008. Illicit drug use declined from 28% in 1980 to 12% in 2008.

The highest rate of heavy alcohol use occurred among those serving in the Marine Corps or Army. They were more likely to be men, white or Hispanic, had less than a college degree, single or married but unaccompanied by their spouse, and in any pay grade except senior officers. Illicit drug users were most likely to be serving in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. They were also more likely to be women, Hispanic or “other,” married but unaccompanied by their spouse, and enlisted.

Systematic data on substance use among the reserve component are limited as few surveys have been conducted on this population. Analysis of a 2006 study found that 6.6% of the Selected Reserves had engaged in drug use in the past 30 days and 12% in the last year. Additionally, 16.7% of reserve component personnel reported past month heavy drinking and 40.4% reported binge drinking,

Substance Use Among Veterans

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than one in ten veterans have been diagnosed with SUD, which is slightly higher than the general population. Marijuana accounts for the vast majority of drug use among veterans, with 3.5% reporting use and 1.7% reporting use of drugs other than marijuana in one month. According to the NIDA, compared to their non-veteran counterparts, veterans were more likely to use alcohol (56.6% vs. 50.8% in one month) and report heavy alcohol use (7.5% vs. 6.5% in one month).

Why Military Personnel Turn to Substance Use

Historically, the use of alcohol, illicit drugs, and tobacco is common in the military. Heavy drinking is an accepted custom that has become part of the military work culture and has been used for recreation, to reward hard work, to ease interpersonal tensions, and to promote unit cohesion and camaraderie. Military personnel may also experience trauma due to the nature of their work, leading to substance use to avoid emotions, thoughts, and memories related to the events.

Service members have been using substances since discovering that they reduced pain, lessened fatigue, or helped cope with boredom or panic that accompany battle. Drug use became a problem during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Vietnam, the military used heroin and opium to help them cope with and avoid the challenges of the war environment.

More recently, the increasing use of prescription drugs among civilians and military personnel has become a national concern. Misuse of prescription drugs in the military is associated with increases in the number of prescriptions for these medications that have been written. These prescriptions are used to alleviate chronic pain among service members who have sustained injuries during the wars.

The Link Between Substance Use and Mental Health

When coming home from serving in the military, veterans face a period of readjustment into everyday life. This reintegration of life with family, friends, and the community can cause stress and unique mental health challenges. Deployment, combat exposure, and post-deployment reintegration challenges are linked to an increased risk of SUD in military personnel.

Deployment and combat exposure can lead to mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the NIDA, it is estimated that 37-50% of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Mental health disorders are strongly associated with SUD. Among recent Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, 63% diagnosed with SUDs also met the criteria for PTSD. Veterans with SUD commonly meet the criteria for co-occurring mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Veterans with SUD are three to four times more likely to receive a PTSD or depression diagnosis.

Take the First Step

The first step in recovering from SUD is stopping the use of substances. Stopping drug or alcohol use can cause uncomfortable, frightening, and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms and should always be done amongst medical professionals.

At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we implement The Gallus Method to ensure your safety and comfort during the detox process. We also provide our clients with a biopsychosocial evaluation to determine their next steps in their recovery journey. This may include residential rehabilitation programs, outpatient programs, therapy for mental health disorders, meetings for Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and more. No matter who you are or where you come from, there is hope for healing.

The stress of deployment and returning home after serving in the military presents risks related to developing substance use disorder (SUD). Substance use is prevalent among multiple military branches, including the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Additionally, more than one in ten veterans have been diagnosed with SUD. There are various reasons why military personnel may turn to substance use, including camaraderie, avoidance of feelings, coping with trauma, the stress of war, reintegration into everyday life, and mental health disorders. The first step in recovering from SUD is stopping using substances, which may present withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal can be uncomfortable, frightening, and even life-threatening. At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we use proprietary, evidence-based medical protocols that prioritize our patients’ comfort and safety to guide them through the detox process. We also provide a biopsychosocial evaluation to help clients indicate their next steps in recovery to ensure lasting sobriety. For more information on starting the journey to healing from SUD, call Gallus Medical Detox Centers at (866) 296-5242.