Substance Abuse in the Army

Last Updated: March 10, 2020

Veterans that served in the Army may have mental health issues that also include substance abuse. This article examines rates of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as the most common mental health diagnoses found among veterans. Addiction and mental health treatment options are available through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and private providers, such as American Addiction Centers (AAC).

Soldiers and Substance Abuse

Substance use and abuse is common among service member and veterans in every branch of the U.S. Military. Addiction is an illness that is defined as a chronic disorder that changes the brain with compulsive behaviors to continue the use of substances.1

 Among active service members and veterans, alcohol is the most widely used and abused substance.2 Marijuana is the second-most commonly abused substance for veterans.2

Alcohol Abuse

Binge drinking is more common among service members.2 When comparing service members to civilians in a 2014 study, 1 in 3 service members report binge drinking, compared to 1 in 4 members of the civilian population.2

However, among veterans entering Veterans Affairs (VA) inpatient rehab programs, 50% cite alcohol as the reason for admission to substance abuse treatment.2 This rate of alcohol as a primary reason for entering VA rehab is twice the rate of the civilian population entering substance abuse treatment. 2 For people who serve in the military, the general acceptance of drinking. For some the stress and trauma of military service can lead to the use of alcohol to cope. When a person leaves the military, these patterns may continue into the life of a veteran.

Signs of an alcohol use disorder can include the continuing use of alcohol despite the serious consequences it may have for the veteran’s personal life and physical health.3 A veteran may also experience physical symptoms of withdrawal when they stop using alcohol, including:3
  • Anxiety.
  • Insomnia.
  • Nausea.
  • Physical agitation.
  • Racing pulse.
  • Seizures.
  • Sweating.
  • Tremors.

Drug Abuse

Drug abuse among active duty service members is not as common as alcohol use disorders.2 Some of the reasons for this lower rate of illicit drug use is the strict policy in all branches of the military, including the Army, of a zero-tolerance policy.2 All branches of the U.S. military conduct random drug testing, and the threat of being discharge from the military is inevitable if a service member is found to be involved with drug abuse, or even recreational drug use.2

It can sometimes be difficult to determine the line between recreational substance use and substance abuse. However, some of the signs of substance abuse include:4

  • A sudden drop in work or school performance.
  • Abrupt changes in social groups.
  • Acting suspicious and secretive.
  • Changes in personality without explanation.
  • Engaging in risky behaviors without considering the consequences.
  • Having legal charges related to drug use.
  • Not being able to fulfill responsibilities at home or work.
  • Paranoid behaviors with no reason for them.
  • Sudden mood changes.

Addiction and with Co-Occurring Mental Health Issues in the Army

U.S. Army Soldire in uniform.

Mental health issues exist among service members, just as they do among the civilian population. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is prevalent among veterans and varies from one group of veterans to another.5 Around 30% of Vietnam veterans may have met the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD at some point.5 Among Gulf War veterans, around 12% have been estimated to have symptoms of PTSD.5 For more recent military conflicts, including Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, the estimated prevalence of PTSD symptoms in veterans ranges from 11% to 20%.5 Depression rates among veterans is also significant. The VA estimates that 1 in 3 veterans have symptoms of depression. As many as 1 in 8 have major depression.6 However, among older veterans, such as Vietnam veterans, are twice as likely to have depression as are Korean War or World War II veterans.6 Co-occurring disorders are illnesses that tend to occur at the same time as a substance use disorder (SUD). For example, having both a SUD and a mental health issue, such as depression, means that a person has co-occurring illnesses. Among veterans, PTSD and a SUD are common co-occurring disorders.7 It is estimated that 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also have a SUD. In addition, 1 in 3 veterans seeking help for a SUD also have PTSD.7

Asking for Help

It is not easy for veterans to reach out and ask for help with mental health issues or substance abuse. Some of the reasons veterans do not ask for help, especially for PTSD, include:8

  • Difficulty accessing services, including distance from providers and delays in care.
  • Lack of awareness, such as not realizing certain feelings are stemming from PTSD.
  • Lack of social support and encouragement to seek help.
  • Not believing that treatment will work.

The VA operates numerous helplines and sites to search for information. The U.S. Army offers a series of videos that discuss numerous mental health topics. The veteran’s crisis line is open 24/7 online or by phone, 1-800-273-8255, then press 1.

VA Substance Abuse Assessment

If you are concerned about substance abuse, the VA also provides a screening tool that can help determine if you could benefit from treatment for alcohol abuse or drug abuse at a VA rehab center or other treatment provider.

Health Insurance and VA Benefits

If you or your loved one is a former service member, numerous treatment options are available, including VA inpatient rehab, as well as private providers. Veterans can also seek community-based services through the MISSION Act Community Care program. These benefits can be used for mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, or treatment for co-occurring disorders.

Rehab for Veterans

The VA offers numerous treatment options at various centers throughout the United States. VA drug rehab and VA rehab centers treat mental health issues and co-occurring disorders.

If the VA doesn’t offer a program in your area, or the VA rehabilitation program in your area has no openings for treatment, the VA may also approve a private provider for treatment through the MISSION Act. The VA must approve these types of requests.

Information regarding TRICARE and its crisis services may be accessed for more information.

In addition, while seeking help, you can reach out to the veterans’ crisis line.

What is Salute to Recovery program?

AAC offers a treatment program called Salute to Recovery that is geared towards veterans with a substance abuse and mental illness. Many of the staff members are veterans themselves, which gives them a perspective to help veterans in a more focused and passionate way.

Our Admissions Navigators are always available to assist you.

Call Now (888) 902- VETS

AAC’s admissions navigators will educate you on what the process looks like and what is needed in order for the VA to pay for a private facility on your behalf.

Remember that PSTD, depression, drug abuse, and co-occurring illnesses are frequent issues for veterans. You can reach out through the numerous services offered through the VA, either directly, or by the VA approving outside providers who can offer addiction treatment or treatment for mental illness. AAC offers services geared to veterans, which can help you or your loved one recover for substance abuse or co-occurring illnesses.



  1. American Society of Addiction Medicine. Definition of Addiction.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance use and military life.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5).
  4. Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Use Services. Warning signs of drug abuse.
  5. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2018). PTSD. National Center for PTSD.
  6. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2016). Depression.
  7. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2019). PTSD and substance abuse in veterans.
  8. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2014). Study explores reasons why Veterans seek—or don’t seek—PTSD care.
Last Updated on March 10, 2020
About the editor:
Sarah Hardey
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A Senior Web Content Editor for the American Addiction Centers. Sarah has worked with healthcare facilities across the country to create digital content for readers of all types.