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The lifestyle of active and veteran military personnel is unimaginable to civilians. Deployment, combat exposure, and injury are extreme and constant stressors that cause more than one in ten to turn to drugs, alcohol, and other substances to help them cope.1 This guide reveals more about the causes of addiction, commonly misused substances, and treatment options for military members.

Addiction Causes While in Service

The causes of addiction among active service members and veterans needing drug rehab are many and multi-faceted. Military culture and stigma are both contributing factors to the development of addiction.

Military Culture

Misuse of alcohol and drugs as well as engaging in risky behavior are all associated with stress related to deployment. Combat exposure can cause a range of conditions, including PTSD, anxiety, and depression, all with their own symptoms that service members may misuse substances to alleviate.


To complicate the existence of addiction with those in active service, many believe that seeking treatment for their addiction will have a negative effect on their career. Another complication is the stigma caused when a service member participates in mandatory drug testing and adheres to zero-tolerance policies enforced by superiors.

Many service members find they face stigma or believe they will for seeking treatment, which causes addiction to continue.

Addiction Causes Once Out of Service

Veterans face several challenges once they leave active service. Many find civilian life to be alien when compared to life in the military, making adjustment and reintegration difficult without substance use.

Serious injuries can cause not only pain but also severe mental distress. However, because of the stigma they may have faced while in service, there may be a reluctance to seek medical treatment and, instead, they turn to substance use to ease symptoms.

Veterans with conditions like PTSD and depression who did not seek treatment during active service due to stigma can also continue drug use as a coping mechanism once discharged.

Drug Usage Among Active Service Members

Several types of drugs were found to be used by active service members:

Alcohol Use

Alcohol misuse is the most common type of substance use disorder among active service members, and it is directly related to the increase in trauma and violence of combat exposure. However, the misuse of alcohol is also due to a lack of consistency in enforcing policies. The cultural norm of heavy alcohol use among military personnel is another reason why alcohol is the most commonly abused substance.

Binge drinking—consuming enough alcohol in a single sitting to raise the concentration of alcohol in the blood to 0.08 g/dL—is also common among those in active duty, affecting approximately 30% of personnel.2 The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) revealed that several members in active duty reported having engaged in weekly binge drinking.

Illicit Drug Use

Illicit drug use is said by the Health-Related Behaviors Survey (HRBS) to have decreased in recent years, being lower in 2015 than it was in 2011. However, this survey’s data relies on self-reported results, and rates of response were found to be low in that year’s survey.

Prescription Drug Use

Misuse of prescription drugs in active service is common due to sickness and injuries incurred during duty. Millions of prescriptions for pain relievers were previously written in a single year, but, thanks to the Department of Defense initiatives, the use of drugs for pain lessened by half between 2011 and 2015. Still, the misuse of prescription drugs remains highest among Army members.

Drug Usage Among Veterans

Once active service members leave the military, usage of alcohol and all other drugs tends to increase.

Alcohol Use

In 2017, a study revealed that veterans were not only more likely to engage in alcohol use than non-veterans but were also more likely to report heavy alcohol use. Among those veterans who enter treatment, 65% listed alcohol as their most frequently misused substance.3 This is nearly double the use reported among civilians.

Illicit Drug Use

A vast majority of veterans have reported using marijuana more than any other illicit drug. However, the use of other illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine was reported to be the reason for admission of over ten percent to inpatient drug rehab for veterans.

Prescription Drug Use

Because of injuries incurred in active duty, many veterans experience levels of pain requiring prescription drugs to treat. Because nearly ten percent of veterans reported having pain in the severe range, they are also more vulnerable to accidental opioid overdose.

Treatment Options and Barriers

Because more is known today about the effects of combat on mental health, more effective treatment options are now available. We also now know that mental health disorders can co-occur with addiction and, because of this, we can now offer treatment for both.

Active Members

Those in active service needing help for addiction can often receive counseling at no charge from professionals at their military base. In some cases, random drug testing may result in a referral to a professional for an assessment. This assessment can also be requested by the service member. However, this can result in disciplinary action, thereby posing a barrier to treatment.

As well, the aforementioned stigma in military culture may cause those who need treatment not to seek it. In-service treatment options for active service members with a substance use disorder can include treatment for psychiatric disorders and trauma.


There are several treatment options available to veterans, including medical and behavioral modalities. Treatment can range from preventive to residential treatment centers and can be accessed via local VA Medical Centers if a veteran is connected with them.

Unfortunately, many veterans are not connected due to living in rural areas with no VAMC nearby. Still others find that, even with a connection, getting the care they need is difficult. The increase of female veterans with substance use disorders has also resulted in treatment challenges. Many female veterans are uncomfortable with seeking VA-based treatment.

As well, female veterans with a substance use disorder have experienced far higher rates of domestic violence, military sexual trauma, and sexual abuse than those without a disorder. Finally, because substance abuse treatment is often administered by males in a male-dominant setting, female veterans may not be comfortable talking about their experiences.

The barriers to treatment that active members and veterans face cause many to seek treatment with a private provider.

Confidential, Specialized Treatment for Veterans and Active Military

The increasing deadliness of weapons used in modern warfare and the extraordinarily stressful situations that military members encounter on a daily basis are taking more of a toll than ever. Military members need a specialized means of addiction treatment that addresses the unique trauma they experience and the mental, physical, and emotional challenges they face.

The specialized veteran substance abuse treatment program offered by BriteLife Recovery is offered in residential, inpatient, and outpatient addiction programs.

Our residential treatment provides supervision, support, and structure that clients require to maintain lifelong sobriety. For those who are in the early stages of their recovery, our inpatient program provides clients with a safe, positive, and comfortable environment. Our outpatient program for military members focuses on helping to support their independence as their learned skills are reinforced in preparation for independent living.

In addition to our residential, inpatient, and outpatient treatment formats, we also offer partial hospitalization programs, detox services, and sober living programs to help clients transition back into society following successful treatment.

All of the programs and services we provide are delivered by a dedicated, experienced, and professional staff that understands the specific challenges faced by veterans and active military members. If you are the spouse or domestic partner of an active military member or veteran who is struggling with a substance abuse disorder or a co-occurring condition like PTSD, BriteLife Recovery can help. Call today.


  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-military-life
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5587184/

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