Veterans and Alcoholism
The Culture of Alcohol Misuse in the Military
Many service members in active-duty military roles see drinking as part of their culture, and service members are more likely to misuse alcohol than civilians.1
Drinking alcohol can serve as a means to connect with fellow service members in the military. As a society, many restaurants and bars offer discounted prices for service members.2 Not surprisingly, alcohol use disorders are the most prevalent form of substance misuse among active service members of the military.3
Exposure to traumatic events, including combat and death, may contribute to high rates of alcohol misuse among members of the military. In fact, military personnel with more exposure to combat tend to have higher rates of heavy and binge drinking than their peers.4 Research indicates that more than 1 in 3 active-duty service members are binge drinkers.5
An alcohol consumption study reviewed a group of 1,100 soldiers who had been part of an infantry team returning from deployment. The study found a correlation between combat and alcohol misuse. An estimated 25% of those who were sampled were misusing alcohol 3-4 months after deployment. Of those, 12% experienced behavioral problems related to their alcohol use.6
Alcohol misuse can continue after military service ends. A study showed that over 65% of Veterans, who entered an addiction treatment program, reported alcohol as their primary substance of misuse.7
Veteran Alcohol Misuse Statistics
Alcohol misuse impacts active-duty military and Veterans. The following statistics illuminate the prevalence of alcohol misuse in Veterans and military personnel:4,8-11
- Alcohol use disorders are the most common substance use disorder among military personnel.
- Service members with more combat exposure are more likely to to engage in problematic alcohol use than their counterparts with no combat exposure.
- More than 20% of all service members report drinking heavily. Heavy drinking is defined as the consumption of 8 or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks per week for men.
- Veterans are more likely than non-Veterans to drink heavily.
- Consistent with the general population, alcohol use disorder diagnoses are more common among Veteran men than Veteran women.
- Alcohol was the most common substance involved in nonfatal overdoses among homeless Veterans, according to one study.
- Alcohol use in military populations is linked to an increased risk of suicide. In 2020, the suicide rate for Veterans was 57.3% greater than for non-Veteran U.S. adults.
Risk Factors for Veteran Alcohol Addiction
Service members and Veterans may drink for a variety of reasons. Some military personnel and Veterans use alcohol to avoid negative experiences, such as feelings of anxiety. Research indicates that Veterans who use alcohol to cope with internal issues, such as stress or depression, are more likely to develop problematic drinking patterns over time.9 Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are common among Veterans. In fact, at some point in their lives, 7 out of every 100 Veterans will have PTSD.12 All of this—as well as military sexual trauma or other past traumas they experienced—may lead service members and Veterans to misuse alcohol.
PTSD and Alcohol Misuse Among Veterans
Many Veterans are diagnosed with PTSD in tandem with an alcohol use disorder. PTSD is a mental health condition that occurs when someone has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or life-threatening event, such as military combat, traumatic injury, or physical or sexual abuse. Symptoms of this condition can cause flashbacks of the traumatic event, night terrors, anxiety, and depression. Veterans with PTSD may be more vulnerable to alcohol misuse and other mental and physical health issues.13,14
War Veterans with PTSD and alcohol problems tend to binge drink, which is defined as drinking an excessive amount of alcohol (4-5 drinks) in a short period of time (1-2 hours).12
Depression and Alcohol Misuse Among Veterans
Studies indicate that most Veterans who suffer from an alcohol or substance use disorder also have co-occurring mental health disorders, like depression. Evidence shows that after military service, the symptoms associated with depression can lead to or worsen alcohol misuse and the psychological distress can also increase a Veteran’s alcohol cravings.4
Military Sexual Trauma and Alcohol Misuse Among Veterans
Military sexual trauma (MST) refers to sexual assault, battery, or harassment experienced during military service. A Veteran may experience a variety of adverse physical and mental health conditions as a result of MST.15 Some of the mental health conditions that may arise from MST, like PTSD and depression, may lead military personnel and Veterans to misuse alcohol. One study found that women reservists, who experienced sexual harassment in the military, were more likely to have depression symptoms and a higher incidence of alcohol misuse. In fact. the data suggests that women military reservists may be at a greater risk of alcohol misuse as a way of coping with depression symptoms that are secondary to experiencing military sexual harassment.16
Past Trauma and Alcohol Misuse Among Veterans
Military veterans with a history of abuse—such as child physical or sexual abuse—have an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. Some individuals actually join the military to escape abusive home environments.4
Effects of Veteran Alcohol Misuse and Addiction
Chronic alcohol use impacts an individual’s physical and mental health. Long-term use can lead to alcohol dependence and addiction. Additionally, prolonged use can exacerbate or cause serious mental health issues, like depression and panic attacks, and potentially damage many vital organ systems in the body, such as the brain, heart, and liver.17
Besides the adverse effects alcohol has on the mind and body, it can lead to negative interpersonal, legal, and professional consequences, too. And binge drinkers are about twice as likely as non-binge drinkers to experience these issues.4
Studies also indicate, among Veterans specifically, that alcohol use increases interpersonal violence, poorer health, and early death.4
Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Alcohol Misuse in Military Personnel and Veterans
Finding Alcohol Rehabs for Veterans
Alcohol use disorder affects a Veteran’s health, emotional well-being, personal life, and professional goals. Over time, this debilitating disease will also begin to impact family members, friends, and other loved ones.
If you are a Veteran who is struggling with alcohol misuse, help is available. At AAC, the Salute to Recovery program supports and treats Veterans diagnosed with alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, in addition to co-occurring diagnoses, such as depression and PTSD.
Therapies used in the Salute to Recovery program include:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Patients learn how to identify negative thinking patterns, as well as behaviors, to live a healthier, substance-free life.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This therapy helps patients find resolutions to traumatic events and life experiences.
- Family Systems Theory. Looking at the family as an emotional unit, Family Systems Theory explores its complexity to help Veterans find their places in the family unit after service.
- Pain Management Group. This group teaches Veterans how to address and deal with pain and physical injuries from military service.
Alcohol addiction is a disease, but with treatment and support, recovery is possible. If you or the Veteran in your life is misusing substances, we encourage you to call our admissions navigators, (888) 902- VETS, to learn more about our treatment programs. Watch a real testimonial from a Veteran that attended treatment at one of our rehab facilities.