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The popular image of a soldier (depending on whether you believe in the cause they’re fighting for) is either “fearless, tough, unyielding” or “brutal, insensitive, ruthless.” In either case, the picture is of someone almost superhuman, someone who never lets personal feelings interfere with following duty when it calls, someone hardly fazed by horrors that drive ordinary people to vomiting or worse. On the field of combat, with adrenaline flowing high and hard, perhaps there’s some truth in that image. But once the shouting and shooting die down—and especially once soldiers return to civilian life—the fierce combatant’s human weakness quickly surfaces. The “shell shock” suffered by World War I veterans, the culture shock and stigma met by soldiers returning from Vietnam, the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afflicting contemporary veterans—all tell the story.
Active and former military members weep at painful memories, meet challenges they weren’t prepared to cope with, and suffer every sort of pain. Too often, they take the addiction-generating path of trying to kill that pain with drugs:
- 47 percent of active-duty service members engage in binge drinking at least occasionally. Among those regularly in combat, over one in four are estimated to binge weekly. One in eight soldiers uses drugs illegally or outside of official medical instructions.
- Nearly half of noncombat deaths in the military are due to drug overdose.
- Over 1.5 million U.S. military veterans have diagnosable substance use disorder, often due to anti-anxiety medications or painkilling opioids prescribed during their active-duty One in five veterans with PTSD also has a substance use disorder, and as many as one in six veterans show symptoms of PTSD.
- Some 30 percent of combat veterans suffer physical harm in the “traumatic brain injury” category, which increases the risk of developing addiction or other mental illnesses.
We’ve touched elsewhere in our Learning Center on wanting to enlist in the military if you have a past addiction or are under treatment. Here, we’ll talk about issues faced by people who became addicted during and after their military service.
After several years in the carefully ordered, high-alert military world, re-entering the more casually structured civilian world can mean major culture shock. The “following orders” approach to life doesn’t get a person far where independence and initiative are valued. Someone accustomed to giving orders may fare even worse in a society that considers it the height of rudeness to neglect “please” and “thank you.” And, of course, it can be hard to cope with a world of freely expressed and widely varying opinions (some just looking for a target to fire anti-military diatribes at) after being long surrounded by peers bound to a common cause.
The veteran who brings home a newly acquired disfigurement or disability faces an additional burden—and mental-behavioral problems also attract stigma and blame that only make it harder to cope. Often even those to whom the veteran was closest fail to understand. Painful as it is to have prayed every night for someone’s safe return, only to see them come back addicted, it stings worse than any shrapnel if you attack them with accusing words:
- “You faced life-and-death situations for a year, and now you can’t handle a simple job search?”
- “And I always thought you were Mr. Macho. Just look at you!”
- “I can’t believe what the Army did to you. I wish you’d never come home.”
Whether or not things are that bad in your household, a veteran (like anyone else) with addiction disorder needs professional treatment as soon as possible. And veterans have extra treatment options to choose from.
VA OR PRIVATE SECTOR?
Any U.S. Military veteran who has received an honorable discharge is eligible for treatment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which now has over one million patients with mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder. This is the best option for many, but not all, veterans. Points to consider:
- VA clinics have extensive experience and inside knowledge specific to the unique issues faced by veterans. Not all private-sector clinics do.
- VA programs guarantee financial coverage for a substantial portion of treatment expenses, drastically reducing the patient’s out-of-pocket costs.
- VA clinics are better regulated than private-sector clinics. The latter can be licensed in many states with minimal checks on background or credentials, and clients must do their own research to verify a place as reputable and competent.
- However, the variety of options is smaller with VA clinics than with private-sector clinics. Especially where veterans live outside major urban areas, VA clinics are not always located within a convenient distance, nor do they guarantee compatibility with any individual’s preferred treatment environment or therapeutic approach.
- Many VA facilities have a reputation for being overcrowded and requiring long waits. For many people, this triggers high stress, possibly making their mental issues worse or tempting them to give up the whole idea of treatment.
Remember that VA coverage doesn’t automatically come with discharge: you have to personally enroll. It’s always a good idea to do so, but that doesn’t bind you to using VA services in every situation. Visit your nearest VA office, as well as a few conveniently located private-sector clinics, and see what sort of “feel” you get from the people and the atmosphere.
MAKING THE FINAL DECISION
Whether you opt for government-funded or private-sector treatment, there are other things every veteran should know about finding a treatment center:
- Don’t be ashamed to admit you can’t “handle things” on your own. This is a problem for most people with addiction issues, but a special temptation for soldiers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and others in jobs that provide a “hero” image to live up to. Remember, the strongest of us are only human: and with increased public understanding of PTSD in combat veterans, chances are you’ll be judged kindly.
- If you’ll be using VA medical benefits to pay for treatment, make sure you know just what’s covered—just as with Medicare or civilian health insurance, being “eligible for benefits” does not mean others will always pay every penny for whatever you think you need.
- See if you can combine VA benefits with any other insurance or Medicare you qualify for: treatment coverage isn’t always a “pick one” situation.
- If you have PTSD or another mental illness, look for a treatment center that specifically mentions “dual diagnosis” or “co-occurring disorders” among conditions treated.
- If you’re considering a private-sector clinic, ask about their experience working with veterans.
Recovering from addiction teaches you to, as they used to say in the Army, “Be All You Can Be.” Don’t wait another day to enlist in treatment. Please contact us today for more information.
American Addiction Centers. “Drug Rehab Guides for Addicted Veterans and Their Families.” Accessed May 22, 2018.
Beach House Center for Recovery. “Contact Us: Start Your New Life Today.” Accessed May 22, 2018.
Beach House Center for Recovery. “Dual Diagnosis Treatment.” Accessed May 22, 2018.
Beach House Center for Recovery. “Firefighter’s Substance Abuse Rehab Options: Understand Your Needs and How to Find Help.” Accessed May 22, 2018.
Beach House Center for Recovery. “Will Going to Drug Rehab Affect Your Chances of Joining the Military?” Accessed May 22, 2018.
Benefits.gov. “Basic Medical Benefits Package for Veterans.” Accessed May 22, 2018.
Benefits.gov. “Veterans Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program.” Accessed May 22, 2018.
Matthews, Joseph L. “Who Qualifies for VA Medical Benefits?” Caring.com, May 21, 2018. Accessed May 22, 2018.
National Veterans Foundation. “What Statistics Show About Veteran Substance Abuse and Why Proper Treatment Is Important.” March 30, 2016. Accessed May 22, 2018.
Tagliareni, Sonia. “Veterans and Addiction.” DrugRehab.com, May 21, 2018. Accessed May 22, 2018.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Locations: Veterans Health Administration.” Accessed May 22, 2018.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” August 13, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2018.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Summary of VA Treatment Programs for Substance Use Problems.” Accessed May 22, 2018.