Alcohol and Drug Use in the Military

Kim Vytell
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Jefferey A. Berman MD, DFASAM
Last Updated
September 6, 2023

Part of the complete guide to understanding addiction

Table of Contents
  1. Drug Abuse In Battle
  2. Coping with Mental Health Struggles
  3. Risks of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Military
  4. Military Response to Alcoholism
  5. Combating Substance Abuse in the Military
  6. Summary: Solution to Alcohol Abuse in the Military

Alcohol and drug use in the military has long been an issue among the veteran population. Military personnel face massive challenges on a daily basis and the toll it takes on mental wellness can be severe.

When addressing the military drug problem and judging its scope, it is important to understand the distinct challenges inherent in every phase of a military career. The risks and consequences vary from phase to phase. The data tells us of the differences between those military members on deployment, and those who have returned home and struggle to reintegrate to civilian life. There are the men and women on the battlefield and there are the veterans who have returned home with images of horror seared in their minds forever.

In this first installment of our overview of the challenges of Substance Use Disorder in the armed forces, we will discuss how alcoholism and drugs impact the battlefield in real time.

Drug Abuse In Battle

Alcohol, in the best of times, provides an easy escape from the stresses of careers in civilian life. Now, imagine people working constantly in dangerous environments, with personal injury and possible death lurking around every corner. In many cases, they are a million miles away from their homes, spouses, and children. Their deployments may have come unexpectedly, giving little time to say goodbye to their loved ones.

For people in the military, support systems and social interactions that we take for granted are non-existent. Walking out the door and going to work involves putting their lives at risk.  Alcohol provides a way to cope, to take off the edge. Research on military personnel between 2009 and 2012 showed that 18% of returning veterans were experiencing a drug use disorder [1].

Many times, units will go out on long, dangerous missions where there is no time to sleep. To properly perform a job that demands precision and unending focus, some will turn to stimulant substances to stay sharp and give them a source of energy. In fact, according to studies on military substance abuse statistics, more than one in three personnel were considered to have a drinking disorder [2]

Aside from moments of intense battle, there is also a lot of downtime in the military. Passing the time in between action while a pit of anxiety is lodged firmly in your stomach is excruciating. Here too, alcohol and other drugs can calm nerves in the quiet moments. It is so difficult to hold back.

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Coping with Mental Health Struggles

PTSD and other mental health issues are common in the military [3]. Coming nose-to-nose with death, losing friends, and being forced to kill all take a tremendous toll on the human psyche. Turning to alcohol can sometimes seem like the only option to chase away the ghosts that torture their every moment.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), binge drinking, described as imbibing 5 or more drinks in one sitting, is much more prevalent among people on active duty, at a rate of over 6 percentage points [2]. A study done by HRBS showed that 30% of service members fell under the category of binge drinkers [4]. The combination of a heavy-stress environment and lots of downtime between skirmishes certainly contributes to those numbers. Additionally, it lends credence to the idea of drinking as part of the military culture.

In summary, there are several triggers for alcohol and drug use in the military. Soldiers will use substances:

  • As a coping mechanism
  • To pass downtime in a high-stress environment
  • To increase focus when battling lack of sleep
  • To deal with crushing loneliness and extended separation from loved ones
  • To chase away the horrors of PTSD and other mental wellness issues
  • Because it is part of military culture

Risks of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Military

The risks that come with the abuse of alcohol and drugs in the military are obviously significant. Our soldiers need to be in a constant state of alertness. Situations can be volatile and change from minute to minute. Being under the influence of substances that dull decision-making instincts and affect reaction times is not a safe state for any soldier.

The military is set up with the structure of troops, battalions, and teams. Everyone counts on each other to have their back and to build a protective net. Senses have to be sharp; composure needs to be at the highest levels, and awareness of everyone’s specific role is an absolute must. It is simply impossible for a person dependent on alcohol to be on the level of performance required.

Military Response to Alcoholism

As in civilian life, the best response to substance dependence is treatment. However, there are realities that present the military world with unique challenges in getting treatment to those who need it. In a perfect world, prevention and education measures, consistent screening, and a confidential system of referrals to good addiction treatment would be best. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near the case.

Punitive Approach to Addiction

Since the 1980’s, the armed forces policy on alcohol and substance misuse  has been a zero tolerance approach [5]. Military discharge for alcohol abuse is the ultimate humiliation in military culture, and a very real possibility for those found to be struggling with an addiction.  Men and women in uniform will do everything possible to make sure this never happens to them. They’ll go to great lengths to hide all signs of drug or alcohol addiction, covering up telltale indications such as alcoholic smell and body odor. Admitting to a substance use disorder and a need for addiction treatment can result in the loss of everything important to them.

Soldiers found to be dependent on illicit substances can be met with dishonorable discharge and other heavy punishments.  This can make personnel very hesitant to admit to their problems and seek treatment. In the testosterone-filled world of the military, it is also difficult to come to terms with something that is perceived as personal failing and weakness. This reality adds to the challenge of getting treatment.

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Lack of Confidentiality Protection

Confidentiality rules in the military are murky. In the words of a one-time Air Force lawyer who runs the National Institute of Military Justice, Michelle Lindo McCluer (as quoted by the New York Times), “Some exceptions to psychotherapists – but patient privilege in the military are so broadly worded, you can drive a truck through them.” [6]

Some examples of these loopholes include “permission to breach confidentiality without consent when federal law, state law or service regulation imposes a duty to report information”, and “ensuring safety of personnel and the accomplishment of a military mission.” The language in these rules is extremely open to interpretation and can include almost anything a unit ever has to do.  

Creativity in Combating Substance Abuse in the Military

While the necessity for these exemptions is sometimes clear, it presents obstacles for soldiers seeking treatment without risk to their careers. With the fear of getting kicked out of the military for drugs, many soldiers choose to hide their substance dependence from peers and commanders until it escalates into an unmanageable addiction. We have to find a way to make it easier for people to come forward while escaping the devastating repercussions they fear more than anything else.

The single most effective way to leave addiction in the rearview mirror is accessing evidence-based treatment. This is not debatable. If we are creative, we can make that more achievable for people struggling with drug use in the military. They are risking their lives to defend our country. It is incumbent upon us to do everything we can to keep them safe on the battlefield and retain the ability to resume meaningful and productive lives upon their return. 

Summary: Solution to Alcohol Abuse in the Military

Avenues Recovery Center is taking the responsibility to our military very seriously. We have developed tracks geared specifically to armed forces personnel in many of our facilities, and have jumped through hoops to make Tricare a preferred provider. (Tricare is the insurance program developed by the U.S. government specifically for active and retired military personnel. Click to read an a full guide of the services Tricare provides and how to access their care.)

We are deeply grateful to our military heroes and will do everything we can to give them the services they so richly deserve.

Please contact us to learn more information about Avenues Recovery, and how we can help with misuse of drugs and alcohol in the army.








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