Substance Abuse and Addiction Treatment for Veterans

For centuries, the brave men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces have made countless sacrifices for their country. While these individuals are typically tagged as heroes, not all of them are left feeling valiant when they return home. Instead, some are left with pain and scars, both physical and mental. To cope with their struggles, many veterans turn to drugs (including illicit substances) or alcohol, which can lead to abuse and addiction. Drug rehab facilities and organizations for veterans throughout the country are well aware of this burden, which is why they offer a variety of resources and treatment programs to address the problem.

Are you a veteran struggling with substance abuse or addiction? Do you suspect you also have a mental illness like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety? If the answer is “yes,” you’re not alone, and help is within reach. The Recovery Village Palmer Lake is just one of the many great options that can help you turn your life around for the better. Located in beautiful Palmer Lake, Colorado, our center offers comprehensive, individualized care. You can also consider the many VA options that are available.

Why Addiction Is So Common Among Veterans

Veterans, particularly war veterans, experience life in a way that most civilians don’t. They see things no one should have to see, leaving hundreds of them in the grips of addiction. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that 1 in 10 returning Iraq and Afghanistan war soldiers face problems with alcohol or other drugs. Some of the reasons that addiction is so common among veterans are:

  • Emotional and mental health struggles, such as:
    • Depression: A mood disorder that causes severe symptoms that last at least two weeks and affect someone’s thoughts, feelings, and how they handle daily activities
    • Anxiety disorder: A disorder that includes a variety of hindering symptoms such as irritability, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating and restlessness
    • PTSD: A disorder that develops after a traumatic event and is characterized by symptoms that persist for at least a month, including flashbacks and nightmares
  • Chronic physical pain
  • Difficulty transitioning back to civilian life

With the weight of these physical, emotional and mental difficulties, it’s often impossible for many to go on without relying on prescription medications. Some veterans even opt for illicit drugs, alcohol, or both, to drown out the discomfort. Whether it’s to numb the pain, shut out the negative thoughts, help with sleeping, or create a temporary euphoria, these substances all provide a specific benefit for veterans. However, the one downside to these benefits is that they can lead to abuse and addiction.

PTSD and Drug/Alcohol Abuse

PTSD is a mental health condition caused by trauma, such as combat situations, and it’s one of the most common mental disorders among veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

–An estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD in their lifetime.
–An estimated 12 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans experienced PTSD in their lifetime.
–An estimated 11–20 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans experienced PTSD in their lifetime.

For veterans with this disorder, daily life is a constant struggle peppered with unwanted thoughts, severe anxiety and many other negative symptoms. Triggers and danger seem to hide behind every corner, and the outside world becomes a fearsome place. To cope, many veterans isolate themselves from their loved ones, and dodge activities they once enjoyed. Some of the other symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping and concentrating
  • Intense feelings of anxiety
  • Persistent fear, guilt or shame
  • Avoidance of people, places and activities that trigger thoughts of the traumatic event
  • Irritable or aggressive behavior
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts

These characteristics can be mentally and physically debilitating, forcing many veterans to drugs and alcohol to manage them. According to the 1995 National Comorbidity Survey, 52 percent of men and 28 percent of women with PTSD met the lifetime criteria for alcohol misuse or dependence, and 35 percent of men and 27 percent of women met the lifetime criteria for drug misuse or dependence. In addition, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states that nearly 1 in 3 veterans seeking treatment for a substance use disorder also has PTSD.

Commonly Abused Substances

The physical and mental aftermath of war leaves many veterans seeking different substances for comfort. These can include drugs, alcohol or both — all of which can provide a specific benefit to the veteran using it. For example, Vicodin (a painkiller) is often prescribed for physical pain, while Lunesta (a sedative) is commonly prescribed for sleeping problems. The following are some of most common substances that veterans use:

Opioids (Painkillers) 

There is a wide range of injuries that a veteran can experience, resulting in varying levels of pain, which is why there are various types of opioid prescriptions. Opioids are man-made substances derived from opiates that are used as painkillers. Although these medications are successful in treating pain, they can be very addictive. According to Dr. Gavin West of the Opioid Safety Initiative at the Department of Veterans Affairs, prescription painkillers are worse for war veterans than other veterans or civilians because they “have more pain to deal with than most.”


Alcohol can be used as a depressant or as a stimulant, depending on how much is consumed, as it affects brain chemistry. It’s commonly used by veterans with PTSD, which has been the case for decades, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

  • Sixty-eight percent of Vietnam veterans seeking PTSD treatment have alcohol use problems.
  • War veterans with PTSD and alcohol problems tend to be binge drinkers.
  • Veterans over the age of 65 with PTSD are at higher risk for a suicide attempt if they also have drinking problems or depression.

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Anti-Anxiety Medications 

Anxiety is another common mental disorder that veterans experience, which is typically treated with prescription benzodiazepines or sedatives. Benzodiazepines (“benzos”) inhibit or reduce brain activity and are often prescribed for anxiety, seizures and panic disorder, among other disorders. Ativan, Xanax and Valium are a few of the most common benzo brands. Sedatives induce a state of relaxation by reducing excitement or irritability, and are commonly prescribed for sleeping problems (insomnia) and anxiety. Some of the popular sedative brands include Lunesta and Ambien.

Issues with Transitioning to Civilian Life

Aside from the physical and mental obstacles, some veterans also encounter difficulties in transitioning back to civilian life after active duty, such as:

  • Returning to or finding a civilian job (some may need additional training and education)
  • Finding gainful employment, housing and other necessities
  • Locating community and camaraderie outside of the military
  • Adjusting to new choices and decisions in everyday life
  • Navigating services and benefits previously provided by the military, including medical and dental care

One of the most overlooked challenges that veterans face when transitioning is the overwhelming amount of choices in daily life. For some, everything from clothing and scheduling to housing and food can be stressful. The sudden influx of decisions and stressors, combined with the potential for unemployment, can lead some to use substances to cope. The good news is, there are hundreds of resources available all over the country to help veterans.

How Treatment Centers and the VA Can Help

If you’re a veteran seeking help for addiction, a mental health disorder, or both, help is available at professional rehab centers, and through programs offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Rehab Facilities 

The Recovery Village Palmer Lake is one of the many rehabilitation centers in the country that helps veterans with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders. The Recovery Village Palmer Lake offers comprehensive treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, among other conditions. Veterans can receive top-of-the-line medical care, individualized wellness programs, holistic therapy and more to meet their needs. Some of the available programs and treatment therapies include:

  • Medical detoxification
  • Residential and partial hospitalization treatments
  • Outpatient programs
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)
VA Treatment Options

There are many VA rehab options offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs Alcohol and Drug Dependence Rehabilitation Program to help veterans struggling with substance use disorders. These options include alcohol treatment, detoxification, rehabilitation and psychiatric care. To receive these treatments, veterans must be enrolled in the VA health care system.

VA drug rehab centers and substance abuse programs offer the following services for veterans:

  • First-time screening for alcohol or tobacco use in all care locations
  • Outpatient counseling with a focus on motivation
  • Intensive outpatient treatment
  • Residential (live-in) care
  • Medically managed detoxification
  • Continuing care and relapse prevention
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Self-help groups
  • Drug substitution therapies and newer medicines to reduce cravings
  • Evening and weekend programs
  • Programs for patients with special concerns, such as women, veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and homeless individuals

The VA also offers treatments that don’t involve drugs, including:

  • Explaining the correlation between PTSD and substance use problems
  • Strengthening the veteran’s motivation for change
  • Helping veterans better identify and deal with triggers and relapse risks
  • Counseling couples together on how to recover from substance misuse
  • Recommending outside support for recovery
Additional VA Resources

Find Your VA Medical Center: Use this list of healthcare providers in major cities to find the VA hospital or medical center closest to you.

Locate VA Substance Abuse Programs: This interactive U.S. map allows you to find VA substance abuse programs in various United States territories and countries using a specific address or zip code.

For Female Veterans: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a free, completely confidential hotline and chat function designed exclusively for female veterans. This number allows women to discuss issues that are unique to them. Call 1-855-VA-WOMEN to speak with someone who can help.

Veterans Crisis Line: If you’re a veteran involved in a crisis, and you need someone to talk to, call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 to speak with a compassionate responder. You can also send a text to 838255 or start a live chat instantaneously.  

For a full list of VA programs and services for substance use and mental health disorders, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ website.

If you’re a veteran struggling with a substance use disorder, or a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder, call The Recovery Village. Lines are staffed with caring professionals who can help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also call the VA for programs near you. You’ve spent your days serving your country; now it’s time for someone to serve you.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.