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Drug addiction is a major albatross around the neck—as much for the stigma surrounding it as for the direct physical, relational and functional problems it causes. Everybody makes mistakes, but some mistakes seem less “redeemable” than others. Sometimes even after successful treatment, people with addiction disorders spend years trying to live down the label of “alcoholic,” “junkie” or “ex-con.”
Even worse than that problem, however, is that fear of it keeps many people from seeking professional help for their addiction. Often they indefinitely postpone doing anything, figuring nothing really bad will happen so long as they stay “functional.” Others try to solve the problem by going “cold turkey” on their own—which sometimes works, but more frequently lands them in the emergency room or ends in relapse for lack of outside support.
Most people with the “I don’t want to be branded a junkie” problem aren’t thoughtless teenagers, but older people with more to lose—those who are already well into successful careers, with hard-built reputations to uphold. This article focuses on one particular subgroup of the “this could ruin everything I’ve worked for” crowd: those who know they need drug rehab and who also want to join the military.
WILL THE MILITARY TAKE ME?
Basic requirements for acceptance into the U.S. Armed Forces include minimum standards for age, citizenship and education—plus “good health” and consideration of any criminal records. It is possible that a diagnosed mental illness—which often goes with addiction—could disqualify you unless you get a special waiver. Ditto for any drug-related arrests or convictions on your record. The final decision would be at the discretion of the recruiters and officers involved.
One thing is certain, though. If you try to enlist without disclosing your addiction or having it treated, it will almost certainly be discovered during routine drug tests—or, if you somehow manage to avoid that, the problem will eventually become obvious through another channel. And the consequences of being caught after you join will be worse than the consequences of being disqualified early on.
GOING TO REHAB WILL ACTUALLY IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES
Actually, you’re best off going to rehab immediately, and then applying for enlistment after you’re through physical detox and well on the path to long-term recovery. The U.S. military, like any other employer, is staffed by human beings who respect the willingness to admit a mistake and the intention to do something about it. They’re a lot more likely to give you a chance if you’ve gone to a respected medical rehab center and done well, than if you try to conceal the problem or if you try to excuse yourself with “I’ve been planning to quit.”
If your time in rehab was more than a year or two ago, and you haven’t had any relapse-temptation problems for a while, you may wonder if those evaluating you for military service really “need to know” about the problem. The answer is usually “don’t try to pretend it never happened,” for the following reasons:
- The military is very good at finding out anything that’s a matter of official record, including drug-related criminal convictions. And things learned through independent research arouse more suspicion than things voluntarily disclosed by the party involved.
- Any major life transition is stressful, and joining the military has its own special stresses. And stress is a major factor in increased risk of relapse. You don’t need to add “will they find out?” worries to the mix.
- Even if you’re officially “clean,” you’ll still require ongoing sobriety support channels. You can continue these in the military, but your superiors will need to know what arrangements should be made, and to be assured these won’t cause serious interference with military functioning.
The question of exactly when and how to make an “I have an addiction” disclosure is a matter of judgment that depends on the severity of the addiction, the substance used, any other problems it’s caused, how soon military evaluators would learn about it on their own, and your individual recruiter’s likely reaction. Before you apply for enlistment, ask your regular sobriety therapist—the person who knows you and your addiction best—for help planning the best way to raise the subject.
HINTS TO MINIMIZE THE RISK OF REJECTION
Besides coming clean about past or existing addiction problems, and being clear on what you’re doing to solve them and prevent recurrence, take the following steps to maximize your chances of being seen as a good risk:
- Have a thorough physical checkup before applying, to make sure drug use hasn’t done unrecognized damage that might disqualify you.
- Recognize that there are different levels of security clearance, physical requirements and the like in the military. If you’re interested in any particular position, check its requirements in advance.
- Never, under any circumstance, show up at any stage of enlistment under the slightest chemical influence. That’s virtually guaranteed to get you thrown out on your ear.
- Establish rapport with your recruiter from the beginning. Having that individual on your side can make all the difference.
- Find out as soon as possible if a “moral waiver” will be needed in your case. If so, apply immediately and follow instructions meticulously.
- Concentrate on presenting yourself as responsible and confident now. Sit (or stand) up straight. Say “I will” rather than “I think” or “I hope.” Avoid shifting blame or making excuses for past behavior. Avoid drifting too far in the direction of either getting cocky or begging for a chance. Be polite and respectful with everyone you talk to.
And if, in spite of everything, you’re rejected for military service? Well, that might not be the ultimate end of your options: you could still be eligible for an alternate position, another branch of the military or another chance in the future. But whatever happens, avoid becoming bitter, and don’t even consider returning to addiction with an “all is lost anyway” attitude. Talk to your sobriety counselor about coping with your disappointment and finding alternate channels to fulfill your dreams. Not everyone can get into the military, but everyone can learn to win the battle against dangerous habits!
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