Alcoholism in the Military: Part 1

Substance Use During Deployment

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Shlomo Hoffman
Jan 06, 2021

  1. Alcoholism in the military
  2. Drug Abuse in the Battlefield
  3. Risks of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Battle
  4. The Military Response to Alcoholism
  5. Conclusion

Alcoholism and substance abuse have 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 for every phase of a military career. The risks and consequences vary from phase to phase. The data tells us of the differences between those members of the military on deployment and those who have returned home and struggle to reintegrate to civilian life. There are the men and women on the field of battle and there are the veterans who have returned home with images of horror seared on their minds forever.

Today, in the first installment of our overview of the challenges of Substance Use Disorder in the armed forces, we will discuss how alcoholism ad 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, 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 and which give color and life to our daily routines, 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.

Many times, units will go out on long, dangerous missions and there is no time to sleep. To properly do a job that demands precision and unending focus, some will turn to stimulant substances to stay sharp and give them a source of energy.

There is also a lot of down time 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.

PTSD and other mental health issues are common in the military. Seeing death, losing friends, and being forced to kill takes 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. 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 in the military as part of a culture.

Risks of alcohol and drugs on the battlefield

The risks that come with alcohol and drug abuse 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 place you want a soldier to be.

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.

Why alcoholism and drug dependence happen in the military

  • Coping mechanism
  • Passing time in a high stress environment
  • Stimulants allow for focus when battling lack of sleep
  • Crushing loneliness and extended separation from loved ones
  • Culture
  • Chase away the horrors (PTSD and other mental wellness issues often develop)

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 response to addiction

There is, understandably and for many of the reasons mentioned above, there is a zero tolerance for substance abuse in the military. Dishonorable discharge is the ultimate humiliation in the 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. 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.  It 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.

Lack of Confidentiality Protection

Confidentiality rules in the military are murky. In the words of a onetime Air Force layer who runs the National Institute of Military Justice, Michelle Lindo McCluer, as quoted by the New York Times, “some exceptions to psychotherapist- patient privilege in the military are so broadly worded you can drive a truck through them.”

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.  

We need to be creative to combat addiction!

While the necessity for these exemptions is sometimes clear, it presents obstacles for soldiers seeking treatment without risk to their careers. It leads to hiding 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 rear-view mirror is accessing evidence-based treatment. This is not debatable. If we are creative, we can make that more achievable for people 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.  

Avenues Recovery on the Eastern Shore is taking the responsibility to our military very seriously. We have developed a track geared specifically to armed forces personnel and 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. An at length guide of the services they provide and how to access their care will be presented by Avenues Recovery in the coming weeks.)

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

Since joining the Avenues Recovery content team, Shlomo has become a thought leader in the addiction field. His popular addiction podcast "Rubber Bands" is a must listen for anyone involved in Substance abuse treatment. He is a Seinfeld junkie, a recovering Twitter fanatic, and a sports expert. He enjoys milk shakes and beautiful views from rooftops.

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