Alcoholism in Active Duty Military Personnel

Written by Theresa Valenzky

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Last Updated - 09/01/2023

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Updated 09/01/2023

Although alcoholism in the military is relatively common, treatment options are available to meet veterans’ unique needs.

Anyone can fall victim to alcohol misuse, even those who serve in the military. When service members develop alcoholism, they are diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is the correct diagnostic term for alcohol addiction. While specific risk factors make military members more likely to develop alcohol addiction, quality treatment is also available to meet their unique needs.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Misuse in the Military

Military life can come with unique stressors. Active duty personnel may be pulled away from their families if deployed overseas or secluded to a military base. While on duty, service members can be exposed to long working hours and sometimes suffer from serious injury or the threat of death. Alcohol can become a way of coping with the common stressors in military life.

Military Drinking Culture

Heavy drinking is sometimes embedded within the military culture. Research has shown that active duty members engage in drinking for recreation, bonding and relieving the stress of the job. Within this culture, alcohol abuse can seem normalized, so those who are heavily drinking do not feel that their behavior is problematic.

Coping With Stress & Trauma

Alcohol misuse can also become a coping mechanism for stress and trauma. Veterans who experience many traumatic events are more likely to develop an AUD, suggesting that using alcohol to cope can lead to addiction. Heavy alcohol consumption can help veterans numb painful emotions associated with trauma.

Ease of Access

While illegal drug use can lead to criminal charges and dishonorable discharge for active duty military members, military drinking does not come with the same risk. This means that drugs aren’t likely accessible in military culture, but the same is not true for alcohol. In fact, alcohol is readily available in the military, with 30% of active service members binge drinking, which is higher than in the general population.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction in Active Duty Military Personnel

Military members who have fallen victim to alcohol addiction will likely show some warning signs. These can include the following symptoms and behaviors:

  • Spending a significant amount of money on alcohol
  • Being unable to cut back on drinking
  • Changes in behavior, which can include mood swings and irritable or aggressive behavior
  • Struggling to control how much alcohol you drink
  • Drinking to the point of putting oneself in danger, which can include blackouts or driving under the influence
  • Withdrawing from other hobbies and activities because of preoccupation with alcohol

Consequences of Alcoholism in the Military

Heavy drinking may be part of military culture, but that doesn’t mean it is harmless. Active duty members who use excessive amounts of alcohol to cope are likely to experience negative consequences, especially if they develop an alcohol addiction.

Worsening of Mental Health Conditions

While veterans may begin drinking to cope with stress and trauma, over time, alcohol misuse is likely to lead to poor mental health. Research with military populations has found that heavy drinking is associated with worsened mental health. With repeated alcohol misuse, a veteran is at risk of becoming addicted, which causes a decline in mental and emotional well-being.

Poor Work Performance

Continuing to drink, even when it interferes with work performance, is one of the diagnostic symptoms of an AUD. Veterans addicted to alcohol will likely have difficulty performing their work duties as alcohol becomes their focus. It can be difficult to fulfill duties at work when recovering from the effects of drinking or coping with withdrawal symptoms.

Accidents & Injuries

Active duty military members are especially vulnerable to injuries, given the physical nature of their work. Alcohol misuse increases the risk of accidents and injuries, including those from:

  • Motor vehicle crashes
  • Falls
  • Drowning
  • Burns

Domestic Violence

Alcohol abuse has been linked to domestic violence perpetration in military service members. Given the overlap between alcohol misuse and PTSD, military members who use alcohol to cope with PTSD symptoms are also at increased risk of domestic violence. Among male service members with a PTSD diagnosis:

  • 27.5% report engaging in physical abuse against their partners
  • 91% admit to psychological violence

Suicide Attempts

Veterans who abuse alcohol are more vulnerable to suicidal behavior. Studies have found that veterans with an AUD are just over four times as likely as those without this diagnosis to attempt suicide. This provides additional evidence that alcohol misuse contributes to poor mental health in service members.

Treatment Options for Active Military Personnel Struggling With Alcoholism

Fortunately, quality treatment is available for service members with alcohol addiction. An AUD is often treated with individual and group therapy and medications to help with withdrawal and cravings. Veterans with alcohol addictions should first consult a doctor to determine if they need a medical detox program to help them cope with withdrawal symptoms. After completing medical detox, it’s important to transfer into an ongoing rehab program.

Help for Alcohol Addiction in Military Service Members

For service members looking for Colorado alcohol addiction treatment, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake offers a full continuum of services, with a state-of-the-art inpatient facility featuring scenic mountain views. We are a member of the VA Community Care Network, with staff trained specifically in helping veterans. Visit our webpage today to verify your insurance.

FAQs on Alcohol Addiction Amongst Military Personnel

What is the alcoholism rate in the military?

The rate of AUD in military populations is difficult to determine because studies can yield different results. However, quality research gives a good estimate of the rate of alcoholism in the military. A nationally representative survey of over 3,000 veterans found that 42.2% had an AUD at some point, and 14.8% showed symptoms of an AUD within the year before the survey.

Another study with active duty service members found that 6.45–10.50 per 1,000 people abused alcohol, and 5.21–7.11 per 1,000 met the criteria for alcohol dependence. This is lower than the rate reported for veterans, which may reflect the fact that veterans may have a difficult time adjusting to the return to civilian life and be at a higher risk of alcohol addiction compared to active duty service members.

Which branch of the military has the highest rate of alcohol misuse?

Research with different military branches shows that members of the Marine Corps have the highest rate of AUD.

Does the VA consider alcoholism a disability?

Veterans who are injured or ill due to their military service or experiencing worsening health conditions while in the service can be eligible for disability benefits through the VA. To become eligible, you must show documentation of the disability and file a claim for disability compensation. Mental health conditions like PTSD, depression and anxiety may qualify a veteran to receive disability benefits.

If you experience an alcohol use disorder with PTSD from your service, you may be eligible for benefits, but veterans aren’t generally eligible for disability benefits based on alcohol use alone. Contact the VA for more information.

What are the most common causes of alcoholism for service members?

Risk factors for AUD in military populations include military culture, easy access to alcohol and mental health conditions like PTSD. The stress of serving in the military and the normalization of heavy drinking can create the perfect storm for alcohol addiction.

What are some signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in service members?

Common signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in service members include mood swings and behavior changes, difficulty cutting back on alcohol use, spending a significant amount of time drinking, withdrawing from other activities, drinking to the point of blackout and struggling to control the amount of alcohol consumed. A service member struggling with alcohol addiction may also begin to perform poorly on the job or engage in dangerous behavior.

How does alcoholism impact service members?

Alcohol abuse and addiction in service members is linked to numerous consequences, including poor mental health, declining job performance, increased risk of suicide, greater risk of domestic violence and risk of accidents and injuries. Relationships with family, friends and coworkers can also decline with alcohol abuse.

What barriers to treatment for alcohol addiction do service members deal with?

Treatment benefits military service members who experience alcohol addiction, but this population may not always receive the treatment they need. Service members face numerous barriers, which include being emotionally unprepared to enter treatment, perceiving that treatment isn’t needed, hesitation to talk to someone, fear of being labeled or getting in trouble and lacking time to seek care.

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