Why are Substance Abuse and Addiction So Common Among Veterans?

substance abuse and addiction among veterans

Why are Substance Abuse and Addiction So Common Among Veterans?

As a nation, we owe our country’s veterans a debt of gratitude for their dedication and service. During their time in the military, our veterans sacrificed themselves fully to their service to our country and many have risked their safety without asking for anything in return.

A veteran’s service does not end when they return home or end their careers with the military, though. Veterans often have many challenges to overcome as they return to civilian life. For too many, one of these challenges is overcoming addiction.

While there is more research to be done about the connection between veterans and substance abuse, we are beginning to understand the role addiction plays in the lives of our country’s service members. Understanding why substance abuse and addiction are so common among veterans can help clinical providers develop better treatment options for our nation’s heroes.

Addiction and Veterans: Understanding the Numbers

Recent research shows that veterans have a slightly higher rate of substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse, than the general population. While some rates of substance use are falling, several have shown sharp increases in the last two decades.

When exploring the relationship between veterans and substance abuse, researchers found that marijuana use among veterans rose by 50% between 2002 and 2009.[1] This could be because of the popularity of marijuana as states have begun to legalize or decriminalize it. This large increase does suggest that more veterans are turning to substances to cope with the effects of their service or to fit into the culture that surrounds military service.

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances among veterans. Sadly, researchers estimate 84% of veterans struggling with alcoholism have not received treatment.[2]

Of the veterans who entered substance abuse treatment, 10% were in treatment for heroin abuse. About 6% were in treatment for cocaine use.

Overall, about 1 in 10 veterans were identified as having a substance use disorder, which is slightly higher than the general population.

Veterans and Substance Abuse: Understanding the Issue

When trying to figure out the best way to treat addiction in any population, it is important to understand the unique factors that affect the group and how these issues might lead to substance abuse. Veterans have a variety of issues that may contribute to their increased likelihood to develop a substance use disorder. Here are the top reasons why substance abuse and addiction is so common among veterans:


In the general population, about 6% of people report living with or experiencing severe pain on a regular basis. Among veterans, this number is 9%.[3] Veterans may have pain as the result of injuries they sustained during their service that contributes to their likelihood of abusing prescription painkillers or other substances. Between 2001 and 2009, prescriptions for opioid pain relievers increased by 8%.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Veterans who suffer a TBI are at an elevated risk of developing a substance use disorder. This is especially true for veterans whose TBI is unidentified or untreated. TBI is also closely correlated with other co-occurring health conditions like PTSD and depression, two conditions that further increase a person’s risk of substance abuse.

The CDC reports more than 430,000 veterans have been diagnosed with TBI.[4]


Veterans are often at an increased risk of homelessness due to a variety of factors. While substance abuse can result in life changes that include homelessness, being unhoused also makes it more likely someone will begin to abuse drugs and alcohol.

In 2017, veterans made up approximately 9% of the US homeless population, and on any given day, more than 40,000 veterans experience homelessness.[5]


Whether it is the stress of being away from home or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, veterans have high levels of stress. Left untreated, PTSD and stress can lead to self-medication and substance abuse.

Easy Access to Alcohol

Alcohol is often readily available on or near army bases. Many countries where troops are deployed do not have a minimum drinking age, meaning people can drink freely when they are 18 or older.


Many veterans report a culture of drinking and substance abuse among active military members. The culture is important among this tightly-knit group, and they often develop a set of shared norms that are hard to reject.

Difficulty Transitioning Back to Civilian Life

While it is impossible to pinpoint one exact reason that our veterans live with higher rates of substance abuse, it is clear that our veterans need more support when they are integrating back into civilian life. The stress of service and returning to civilian life, as well as the physical and mental injuries our veterans sustain, need more care and attention to prevent our veterans from living with these issues alone.[6] The inability to adjust back to civilian life is another reason why substance abuse and addiction are so common among veterans.

Treatment for Veterans Struggling With Substance Abuse and Addiction

If you or someone you love require treatment for addiction or substance abuse, or you want support at any stage of your recovery from addiction, please reach out to the staff at Florida Recovery Group. We offer carefully designed TRICARE treatment plans for veterans that help them overcome their challenges, heal from trauma, and thrive in their daily lives.

If you have been putting off getting the help you need, don’t wait another day. At Florida Recovery Group, we believe that anyone can recover from addiction if they have the right care and support. We will help you get the skills you need to live a healthy, fulfilling life free of your addiction. Call today to learn more about our TRICARE Military and Veterans program.


  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22564034/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3794703/
  3. https://www.research.va.gov/topics/pain.cfm
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/military/index.html
  5. https://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/Homelessness_in_America._Focus_on_Veterans.pdf
  6. https://www.va.gov/vetsinworkplace/docs/em_challengesreadjust.asp