Close this search box.
Close this search box.

The Complete Guide to Veteran Substance Abuse

Veteran substance abuse is a persistent problem in the United States. As military members return from deployment, they often come back suffering from physical and mental health problems, leaving them more susceptible to substance use disorders. Although veteran substance abuse isn’t new, we’ve noticed an increase in more addiction cases among former military personnel in the past years. However, there are treatment options for veterans struggling with drug or alcohol addiction to regain control of their lives and care for their health. 

Why is Veteran Substance Abuse So Common?

Between 2004 and 2006, approximately 7.1% of American veterans met the criteria for diagnosing substance use disorder. For veterans ages 18 to 25, the rate was about 25%. After going through traumatic experiences while deployed, it’s not unlikely for veterans to suffer from physical and mental declines. In many cases, they’ll turn to substances to self-medicate or deal with symptoms of injuries or mental health disorders.

We know that drug and alcohol abuse among active service members is quite prevalent. Between 2002 and 2008, active duty service members misusing prescription drugs increased from 2% to 11%. The majority of them struggled with addiction to prescription medications like OxyContin and Vicodin, both strong painkillers. It’s not surprising that many will continue to resort to these substances after coming back home. 

Alcohol is the next substance that plays a significant role in substance abuse among active military members and veterans. Almost half of active duty service members reported binge drinking alcohol.

The Link Between Veterans and PTSD

It’s impossible to blame a substance use disorder on a single thing. However, studies show that PTSD and substance abuse problems are strongly related to veterans. Many experts believe that when PTSD symptoms are left unaddressed, substance abuse is likely to follow. 

PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans

Estimates say over 30% of deployed and non deployed veterans in the past 13 years have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s about 11-20 out of every 100 veterans in the United States. Also, almost 20% of veterans with PTSD struggle with addiction or dependence on drugs or alcohol. That’s more than 2 of every ten veterans with PTSD who also have a substance use disorder. 

Anyone struggling with PTSD struggles with flashbacks, hopelessness, trouble sleeping, aggression, and self-destructive behavior. All of these symptoms can improve when someone is under the influence of certain drugs. 

Substance Abuse in Veterans Statistics

More than 1 in 10 veterans are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, that’s slightly higher than the average among the general population. The veteran population is also significantly impacted by several critical issues related to substance use, such as pain, suicide risk, trauma, and homelessness. Let’s explore in detail the different substances abused by veterans.

Illicit Drugs

Reports of illicit drug use increase significantly once members leave military service. Marijuana leads the illegal primary drug among veterans, with 3.5% reporting use. From 2002 to 2009, cannabis use disorders increased by more than 50% among veterans treated by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) system. Although marijuana is legal in many states, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug for the VA and the federal government, which means it’s still considered illegal for them. Other illicit drugs among veterans include heroin (10.7%) and cocaine (6%).

Opioids and Prescription Drugs

The biggest concern is opioids and prescription drugs. Most active-duty service members misuse or abuse prescription drugs. In particular, veterans struggle with chronic pain (9%), and prescription painkillers tend to be their drug of use. The rate of veterans receiving opioid prescriptions went from 17 to 24 percent between 2001 and 2009. Likewise, the overall rate of opioid overdose increased from 14 to 21 percent between 2010 and 2016.


Although alcohol is a legal and widely available substance for active military members, alcohol use disorder is the most prevalent substance use disorder among military personnel. A 2017 study analyzing the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports veterans were more likely to report heavy alcohol use. About 65% of veterans who seek addiction report alcohol as the most commonly misused substance. 

Smoking and Vaping

While not seen as an issue of opioids or illicit drug use, tobacco addiction is common among veterans and active members. Data says that veterans are more likely to use tobacco products than non-veterans in all age groups. Even in 2015, 12.4 percent of service members reported they had vaped within the last month, with 11.1 percent saying they were daily e-cigarette users. 

The Deadly Consequences of Substance Abuse Among Veterans

Substance use often precedes suicidal behavior in the military. About 30% of Army suicides and over 45% of suicide attempts since 2003 involved alcohol or drug use. Also, an estimated 20% of high-risk behavior deaths were attributed to alcohol or drug overdose.

A VA study found that veterans receiving high doses of opioid painkillers were more than twice as likely to die by suicide than those receiving the lowest doses. But most of those suicides are with firearms, not opioids, and the link between these remains unclear. 

U.S. military veterans are estimated to be 11% of the homeless population. Around 70 percent of homeless veterans also struggle with substance use disorders. Even after seeking treatment, one of every five veterans was homeless. These homeless veterans experience unique challenges and barriers to substance use disorder treatment. Besides, it places them at an even higher risk of overdose or suicide. 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), veterans’ number of fatal overdoses was nearly 2x higher than the civilian overdose rate, with overdose rates primarily driven by opioids.

Why Are Veterans at Risk of Addiction?

Many factors put veterans at a higher risk for developing addiction or substance use dependence. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Trauma: Exposure to trauma is directly linked to an increased risk of substance use disorders, and veterans are more likely to be exposed to extremely traumatic events.
  • Sexual trauma: Beyond war experiences, male and female veterans might have experienced sexual assault during their deployment. About 1 in 5 female veterans have been diagnosed with military sexual trauma by the VA. 
  • Access to prescriptions: Because veterans are likely to suffer from chronic pain due to combat-related injuries, they’re often prescribed highly addictive painkillers to manage their injuries. In 2009, military doctors wrote around 3.8 million prescriptions for pain relievers.
  • Homelessness: We mentioned it before, but almost 10% of the homeless population are veterans, with nearly 75% of homeless veterans struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.
  • Barriers to treatment: Even today, many veterans are deterred from seeking treatment by the perceived stigma. Scared of losing their benefits and honor, many continue to fuel their addiction without seeking treatment. 

Treatment for Veterans

However, there’s a massive issue to address here. Treatment for veterans is widely available, both through the VA and private addiction centers. Of course, none of this comes without controversy.

Medical Marijuana

Right now, the VA’s website still labels marijuana as harmful to veterans. Under federal law, marijuana remains on the Schedule I list under the Controlled Substances Act, the same level as heroin. Since the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a federal organization, it follows the same parameters. 

However, as the nation continues to embrace medical marijuana use, these standards seem to be limiting non-opioid options for veterans. Nonetheless, veterans nationwide use cannabis to deal with PTSD symptoms, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. 

In a 2017 survey, 92 percent of veterans said they supported medical cannabis research, and 83 percent support legalizing medical cannabis.

A new study concluded that cannabis could help people cope with depression symptoms and thoughts of suicide in people with PTSD. Other studies show that people with PTSD but don’t medicate with cannabis are more likely to suffer from severe depression and have more suicidal thoughts than those who report using cannabis. 

So far, veterans have tried to push legislation at the Congress to make medical marijuana available at the VA. Unfortunately, their efforts have met hard stops. 

Treatment Options

Addiction to prescription drugs is possible and very common. However, once people become addicts, cutting these drugs, cold-turkey can be life-threatening, so most people start with a partial hospitalization program (PHP) in conjunction with detox programs to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms. 

It’s paramount to speak with an addiction treatment specialist to determine the best way to start seeking help for addiction. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our drug addiction recovery programs include:

  • Medical Detox: In this clinically supervised detox process at treatment centers, we ensure the patient’s safety and make the withdrawal phase as comfortable as possible by minimizing withdrawal symptoms and using medication-assisted treatment services to guarantee a complete detoxification process. 
  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment: Since many long-term addicts often struggle with mental health issues, a dual diagnosis program can get them the help needed to treat both conditions simultaneously. This is incredibly helpful for veterans who are often struggling with co-occurring mental health disorders. 
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Most of the time, these sorts of addictions develop due to compulsive behaviors that must be treated at the source, with CBT being one of the most popular evidence-based treatments to treat addiction. 
  • Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs: When patients seek addiction treatment while maintaining daily obligations like work, school, or caregiving, IOPs are a more flexible option that gives people access to the help they need. 
  • Long-term Recovery Programs: With long-term recovery assistance, patients can have the ongoing support they need to maintain long-lasting sobriety. Recovery programs are crucial to relapse prevention. 

In addition, veterans might benefit from alternative therapies like EMDR to address their PTSD diagnosis. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Beyond the behavioral interventions, the VA promotes the use of medication-assisted treatment. So far, there are 3 FDA-approved medicines to help with opioid addiction. These are:

Of course, these treatments also come with their fair share of controversy. While these drugs effectively treat addiction, they’re also highly addictive themselves, as they work similarly to opioids. Without proper supervision and guidance, someone could fall dependent on these substances as well. 

Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved a medicine called lofexidine to help make withdrawal symptoms easier for people trying to stop using opioids, which should be followed with engagement in treatment.

The Veterans Health Administration acknowledges that treatment with opioid use disorder, including opioid agonists, is the first-line treatment for opioid use disorder and recommends it for all opioid-dependent patients.

Despite evidence of effectiveness, fewer than 35% of Veterans Health Administration patients diagnosed with opioid use disorder receive these medications.

The VA Options to Help Veterans 

There’s a significant problem with substance abuse and veterans. Throughout the years, the VA has adopted new programs to help its veterans. A 2012 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report identified several barriers to substance use disorder care among active-duty military personnel and veterans, including:

  • Limited access to treatment
  • Gaps in insurance coverage
  • Stigma
  • Fear of negative consequences
  • Lack of confidential services

The report drafted some recommendations, such as offering evidence-based treatment interventions, expanding access to care, and broadening insurance coverage to include effective outpatient treatments. 

In 2013, the VA began the Opioid Safety Initiative, an extensive intervention that has reduced opioid prescribing by 16% among active-duty members and veterans. They also revised their clinical practice guidelines for prescribing opioids and increased the number of resources available for consumers. 

Other efforts include the expansion of treatment services for active-duty personnel to include intensive outpatient programs. Lastly, the VA also developed the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide. The program provides the framework for identifying priorities, efforts and contributes to the national focus on veteran suicide prevention. After launching the program, from 2015 to 2016, the number of suicides per year among veterans decreased. 

Resources for Veterans

Studies regarding veterans and substance abuse keep happening. A 2019 study identified chronic pain as a common condition among polysubstance users. It showed the importance of incorporating interdisciplinary pain management approaches during treatment to reduce reliance on long-term opioid therapy and improve rehabilitation. 

However, family members and friends need to access the right resources to help their loved ones with substance abuse. These are some resources for active military members, veterans, and their families:

Receiving Help

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, seek substance abuse treatment immediately. Call Lighthouse Recovery Institute today and speak with our addiction center specialists about our comprehensive and personalized addiction treatment programs.

We’re proud to help our veterans get the treatment they need to recover. We honor their service and stand by their side every step of the way. We’ll work with their insurance or help them find the best way to pay for treatment. In addition, our tailor-made approach will help them find the best treatment programs to start walking toward recovery today. 

Our philosophy revolves around treating each patient in a case-by-case scenario because we know no two addiction stories are alike. Start walking towards your recovery, and we’ll be here supporting you and your family every step of the way. Please don’t wait another day to start addiction treatment–your life depends on it. 

Scroll to Top