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Drugs in the Military: How They Affect Our Troops

5 minute read

When you think of the military, you probably don’t think of substance abuse. The regimented, efficient nature of the military leaves little room to imagine soldiers struggling with alcohol or drug abuse. Unfortunately, many United States military members struggle with substance abuse. Service in the military itself may drive some soldiers to use substances. It’s extremely stressful. It strains a person’s natural ability to cope. This is even more true for war, which far exceeds anyone’s ability to cope. The standards and pressure soldiers face can lead them to depend on substances like alcohol or drugs if those substances help them make it through.

Substance Abuse in the Military: Tied Through History

Drug use in the military has a long history. It’s existed in wars as long as there have been wars. Even Homer wrote about alcohol consumption among soldiers, and Vikings were known to use mushrooms or henbane to induce rage during battle.

Specific wars were known for different substances:

  • The Civil War – Soldiers used morphine for a variety of purposes. Around 400,000 soldiers returned home addicted to morphine.
  • World War I – Tobacco was widely distributed by the government during the war to ease stress and boredom. Cocaine and opium were also commonly used.
  • World War II – The Second World War became known for amphetamine (speed) and methamphetamine (meth) use. German soldiers used an early form of crystal meth called Pervitin, as well as cocaine chewing gum. It’s estimated German soldiers consumed around 200 million methamphetamine pills during World War II.
  • The Vietnam War – Speed continued to be used by Americans during this war. It was primarily distributed by the U.S. government and was known as “Pep Pills.” Dosage and frequency were not regulated. Other drugs common in the Vietnam War were marijuana, heroin, and codeine.

What Drives Service Members to Use Drugs and Alcohol?

There are a few specific reasons why men and women use drugs in the military, including to:

  • Enhance performance – Drugs like amphetamines, commonly known as speed, keep soldiers awake and alert. Soldiers have used methamphetamines in past decades to increase energy and keep them awake for long periods of time.
  • Reduce wartime anxiety – There’s considerable stress involved in the military, no matter if it’s wartime or peacetime. The rigorous daily schedule or inescapable trauma of battle make it difficult to relax enough to sleep. The depressant effects of alcohol are commonly relied upon to help soldiers relax. In fact, a 2014 estimate found more than one in three service members met criteria for hazardous alcohol use or possible alcohol use disorder. Other drugs like cocaine have also been used to ease anxiety.
  • Treat injuries – Morphine was often used to treat injuries on the battlefield. It alleviated pain and made procedures like amputations more bearable. Painkillers are commonly prescribed to active duty service members today. This could even be a contributing factor to the opioid epidemic.
  • Cope with post-traumatic stress – There are enormous barriers to getting mental health treatment while on active duty. Sometimes the only thing soldiers feel they can do is use drugs or alcohol to cope with symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety.
  • Boredom – Life in the military can feel either very intense or pretty boring—there’s not much in-between. When the boring days stretch into weeks, service members often seek entertainment from nightlife. This usually means drinking in bars or nightclubs. One-third of troops have reported binge drinking.

How Do Drugs Put Military Members in Danger?

Substance abuse has negative consequences for everyone, but those for service members are even more dire. This is mostly because of the high-risk situations they are in. Addiction among the general population is deadly because of overdoses, driving under the influence, etc. For soldiers, addiction on the battlefield is deadly for the substance abuser, their comrades, and their superiors.

Dangers of addiction among soldiers include:

  • Personal safety on the battlefield, due to slowed reaction times, inhibited judgment, and greater risk of being separated from fellow soldiers
  • Health risks – Drug use causes a strain on organs like the heart and lungs, making rigorous physical exercise dangerous.
  • Jeopardizing the safety of comrades and superiors – While under the influence, soldiers may be less reliably able to look out for others’ safety
  • Conflict and tension within a military unit, compromising effective communication and cohesiveness

In addition to these real physical dangers, there are other grave risks that come with military drug use. These include the possibilities of dishonorable discharges and legal charges. There is no assumption of confidentiality in the military. All it takes is one positive drug test to end someone’s career, and that’s enough for many people to avoid drugs altogether. For the rest, it can make them that much more secretive.

Does Substance Abuse Still Affect Veterans?

Drug and alcohol addiction doesn’t tend to resolve on its own. When a service member who abuses substances leaves the military, they lose all the protective factors that helped control their use. They lose the constant companionship they had in their comrades and may be lonely. They don’t have the distractions and the purpose that may have helped them cope with PTSD. They also don’t have the scrutiny, drug tests, or fear of being discharged.

Despite all these challenges, veterans often don’t seek help. The fear of getting caught can carry over into life after the military. There’s also significant stigma about mental health in the military community. Half of military members believe seeking mental health treatment would negatively impact their military careers. The messages that come with this stigma—like, “You are weak if you get help”—don’t fade once someone leaves the military. A veteran with PTSD could spend their whole life coping with substances rather than getting much-needed therapy.

The VA has a plethora of mental health and substance abuse services available, and is working to end stigma around treatment for veterans. However, this stigma has existed for a long time, and progress is slow.

How Should a Service Member or Veteran Get Help?

The mental barriers to getting treatment are the hardest to overcome. If you are a service member or veteran and are struggling with substance abuse, know you are not alone. There are many treatment programs to help you learn to live a healthy and sober life. Telling any of them you struggle with substance abuse will not get you in trouble.

Footprints to Recovery offers several treatment programs to fit different levels of need and the time you have to dedicate to addiction treatment right now. We also treat dual diagnoses of PTSD and substance abuse. Your treatment plan will be individualized to allow you to process your trauma and stay sober for good. Our services are compassionate and confidential. Reach out to us today.


Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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