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From bullets to bottles: Many service vets face new battles when home

For men and women surviving their service to country, a battle looms stateside.
For men and women surviving their service to country, a battle looms stateside.
Scott Stevens photo

Memorial Day gives a grateful nation pause to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms, but many troops survive their service only to face fierce fighting with substance abuse. Not every soldier has an alcohol use disorder, such as the disease of alcoholism. The number of current and former troops who do, however, is a percentage nearly two times greater than found in the general population.

Beer and liquor are the crutches for an alarming and growing number of servicemen and servicewomen who fought abroad – from Vietnam to Bosnia to Afghanistan. Many of those who have seen active duty turn to alcohol to try to deaden the images of what they’ve endured. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often is an unwelcome side effect of active duty. And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) notes that PTSD and alcohol misuse are common partners.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) reports that of nearly 30 million veterans in the United States, 56 percent of male veterans and 41 percent of females have problems with alcohol and 23 percent of males and 14 percent of females binge drink.

Additionally, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, one in eight troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008 were referred for counseling for alcohol problems after their post-deployment health assessments. The number of soldiers enrolled in treatment after being diagnosed with alcohol use disorders has increased 56 percent since 2003.
Alcohol use disorders are divided between alcohol abuse and the disease of alcoholism. See the related examiner.com story, Know the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse, for the distinction.

“This pairing of PTSD and alcohol can be big trouble for the trauma survivor and his or her family,” according to the VA. “People with PTSD are more likely than others with the same sort of background to have drinking problems. By the same token, people with drinking problems often have PTSD. Those with PTSD have more problems with alcohol both before and after getting PTSD. Having PTSD increases the risk that you will develop a drinking problem.”

The government department adds that alcohol problems are more common for survivors who have ongoing health problems or pain. “Sixty to eighty percent of Vietnam Veterans seeking PTSD treatment have alcohol use problems.”

To gain a fuller understanding of alcohol use disorders among younger veterans and active-duty personnel, the Millennium Cohort Study is following a representative sample of U.S. military from 2001 to 2022. It is the largest prospective study in military history. Findings from this study suggest that Reserve and National Guard personnel and younger service members who deploy with reported combat exposures are at an increased risk for the onset of heavy weekly drinking, binge drinking and other alcohol-related problems. War veterans with PTSD and alcohol problems tend to be binge drinkers.

All service branches, the VA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are trying to address the alcohol crisis for more than just the health costs and social damage: The VA notes, vets over age 65 with PTSD are at a higher risk of suicide when they turn to alcohol.

In one project, researchers are using smart phones and wearable wireless sensors to record real-time responses to stress among veterans suffering from addictions and trauma. The VA offers a brief, anonymous and confidential tool on their website to help veterans who may have concerns about their drinking. The Drinker’s Check-Up is another easy-to-use website developed for veterans under a grant from the NIAAA.

The referral process and accessibility of treatment options for veterans with alcohol use disorders are only slightly better than the resources available to the general public today, however, the military was playing catch-up with their budgeting for such resources for the past decade. They are taking education, treatment and prevention seriously, today, as we welcome home more of our nation’s warriors from the Afghanistan war, but the resources are available to all veterans.