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Understanding the Problem of Addiction in the Veteran Community

Personal Perspective: Veterans often use alternative methods to cope.

Key points

  • While I was in a substance abuse program, I heard from veterans of all eras that drinking or doing drugs was just easier than swallowing a pill.
  • We live high-risk lifestyles that involve sex, drugs, and alcohol.
  • Many veterans that I’ve come across have had addictive personalities.

“David, when you drink, I bet you don’t have nightmares when you go to sleep, do you?”

This is what a doctor in a substance abuse program asked me. It blew my mind that he was right. For years I have been drinking myself to sleep. I used to have very bad nightmares about the sniper that shot me while I was serving in Iraq. Doctors at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) had prescribed me Tramadol and Prazosin for nightmares. They worked well. However, drinking was more fun and gave me a better feeling, so I used that to sleep instead.

A couple of years ago, I started to drink a lot. Every night I would black out. Sleep would be pitch black, no dreams at all, just hard, drunken slumber. Reading a 2006 journal article from the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, I learned that I had what's called "adjustment insomnia." According to the report, “In the new international classification of sleep disorders (ICSD2) (39) 'adjustment insomnia' represents the effects of acute stress, whereas 'primary insomnia' represents the long-term consequences of mainly adjustment insomnia.” While I was in a substance abuse program, I heard from veterans of all eras that drinking or doing drugs was just easier than swallowing a pill.

We all said something about using our substance of choice. Veterans love to drink with other veterans, veterans love to do drugs with other veterans, and veterans love to be in the company of other veterans. Who can a veteran talk to about going to war with besides another veteran? That is when the substances start to flow. That’s when you hear stories about why the veteran is addicted to their substance of choice. Most of the stories that I’ve heard are about how veterans abuse substances to deal with the physical and emotional pain they have after serving. We come out of the war with bad knees, bad spines, necks, soldiers, and more.

While many veterans do not have substance abuse problems, others do. Some veterans abuse hard drugs, like cocaine or crystal meth. Others drink alcohol, and others take their prescribed medication, but they take them in excess. Many veterans that I’ve come across have had addictive personalities, addicted to cigarettes, dipping tobacco (to the point where they developed mouth cancer), and other vices. A dependency that many veterans I know came back from Iraq with was for caffeine. There is a term in the military: “stay alert, stay alive.” Drinking six Red Bulls a day will certainly keep you alert. However, being dependent on caffeine or tobacco won’t keep you alive for long.

According to a 2016 journal article from Public Health Reports, “People who have a prescription opioid use disorder are 40 times more likely to than those without this disorder to use heroin, and these individuals are more likely to inject opioids, which substantially increases their risk of infection from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the hepatitis B and C viruses.” For me, addiction started the day after I was shot in Iraq. I was pumped so full of morphine and other drugs on the way from Iraq to the United States that I have weeks of my life during that time that I do not remember.

I took photos with 4-star generals where I could barely keep my eyes open because I had a constant drip of morphine going into my veins. In the hospital, I found out that I had a DVT (deep vein thrombosis) in my leg that required me to take two blood thinners: Lovenox and Coumadin. After my three-month stay in the hospital, I was prescribed morphine pills, but I wanted to get a different buzz, so I started to drink. When I returned to the doctor they checked my Coumadin level to make sure the medication was working. They were very alarmed because my blood was too thin, a result of drinking while taking my blood thinner.

There is a common theme among veterans. We all survived horrific events in war. Many feel we are untouchable, we are going to get drunk, we are going to get high because nothing can kill us. We experienced something that I called “Superman Syndrome.” We live high-risk lifestyles that involve sex, drugs, and alcohol. A 2020 journal article from the American Society on Aging states, “Risky alcohol use is defined as exceeding guidelines (i.e., four or more standard drinks on any day for women and five or more on any day for men) at least once a week in the past twelve months.”

There was a false sense of comfort that I felt hanging with a group of guys that I used to drink with. Everything was fine until I lost a good friend of mine. It turns out Superman found his Kryptonite—addiction. Just like in the civilian world, drug addicts hang with drug addicts and alcoholics hang with alcoholics. Veterans addicted to drugs or alcohol often don’t see other veterans as addicts. We see each other as brothers in arms that are ready to defend the country at the drop of a dime. We just like to have a good time while we do it.

Alcohol addiction followed me well into my life as a civilian. The VA has an excellent substance abuse program that has helped me overcome my alcohol addiction. If you are a veteran, or if you know a veteran struggling with addiction I’d highly recommend the substance abuse program at your local VA. Many of us have survived too many combat deployments to pass away from drug or alcohol addiction. We help save the country, now you can help save yourself.


Âkerstedt, T. (2006). Psychosocial stress and impaired sleep. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 32(6), 493–501.

Murthy, V. H. (2016). A PROMISE FULFILLED—ADDRESSING THE NATION’S OPIOID CRISIS COLLECTIVELY. Public Health Reports (1974-), 131(3), 387–388.

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