Each branch of the military has its own set of specific set of traditions. These traditions help newcomers adapt to live in the armed forces. Unfortunately, some military traditions are not positive and may persist when time comes to return to civilian life. For example, military life often includes alcohol abuse. Some individuals use alcohol to help them prepare to go to battle, while others drink in order to forget the horrors of battle or the stresses of war.
Whatever thereason, alcohol abuse is quite common. In fact, according to studies quoted by theNational Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the incidence of heavy drinking among members of the military between the years 1980 and 2005 ranged from 15 to 20 percent.1 For anyone who starts a drinking habit while in the military, treatment is the best way to break free and move past alcohol abuse.
Finding the Problem
Real healing cannot take place until people who drink become aware of the dangers of their habits. For some, this knowledge comes while they’re still active participants in military life. Members of the Marine Corps, for example, might learn of their alcoholism due to random drug testing as alcohol is being screened in addition to other drugs.2
Some people don’t see the signs of their addiction as they may function at a nominally acceptable level throughout their military careers, despite drinking heavily. When these people return home, however, their behaviors likely cause their families alarm or distress. On many occasions, they may be asked to accept addiction help in order to avoid an impending catastrophe.
Active members of the military may be referred directly to treatment programs provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Some VA Medical Centers offer specific substance abuse treatment programs, while others use community-based programs. These can be good options for some people, as the care provided tends to be at least partially subsidized by the military. This can allow people to get the addiction help they need without paying a huge amount of money for the treatment process.
However, not everyone who is eligible for these services will choose to take part. Active members of the military may worry that an admission of an addiction could lead to:
- Taunts and teasing
- Lack of choice assignments
These consequences could impact a person’s ability to make a decent living, or they could even end a career. While the military does not actively encourage this sort of discrimination, some service people are so terrified at the mere idea that they choose not to enroll in VA programs.
Similarly, not everyone who has a drinking problem is eligible for VA help. Some people who binge drink make terrible choices while on the job, which places colleagues at risk. This sort of behavior tends to lead to a dishonorable discharge. Sadly, when that happens, the individual could lose VA benefits.
It is important to know that whether people enroll in VA programs or seek help in a private facility, they won’t be alone in the fight against alcohol. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 7.1% of U.S. veterans meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.3 It’s a common issue, and therapy can make a remarkable difference.
In most cases, the treatment process begins with detoxification. This initial step allows the body to adjust without substance abuse. Sometimes, it can be a rough transition. Alcohol tends to leave a significant amount of damage behind, slowing down electrical activity inside the brain to such a degree that the cells become unaccustomed to normal levels of functioning. Some people can become agitated and angry, hallucinating and screaming. As the process moves forward, some even may have seizures.
Because detox can be so dangerous, it is recommended that individuals have the help of medical professionals. Once detox is over, formal therapy programs begin and the healing process continues.
When detox is complete, it’s time to dig deep into the reasons that led to substance abuse. Often, these conversations involve the issue of trauma. Participating in the military often means dealing with all sorts of horrific situations, including:
- Active battle
- Death of friends
- Death of civilians
- Life-or-death choices
- Stressful moments filled with impending death
These are the sorts of situations that tend to lodge in the mind, and without therapy, they can form their own sort of damage. People may find that they’re haunted by the events that have taken place, and they may be unable to forget the episodes without the use of alcohol. This sometimes leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the National Center for PTSD, about 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan come home with this condition.4
Therapy for PTSD normally involves using structured therapy sessions to process memories. When individuals are able to discuss their memories in a setting that won’t cause them harm, they may finally feel as though the incident took place in the past and doesn’t have the power to harm in the present.
Therapy may involve talking, games, role-play exercises, and watching videos. Some therapists even incorporate hand movements into their therapies, using a technique known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Any of these techniques could allow military members to move past their trauma, so they can live in the present without the need of the numbing of alcohol.
When an individual spends time living in a barracks, he may change his views on home life and household responsibilities. Some returning soldiers may feel cut off from their families and the routines of the household. They may also feel isolated from the people they once held so dear. Drinking can further increase that sense of isolation, as an inebriated person is often unable to find a place within the confines of a happily functioning household. As the alcoholism deepens, the families are often fractured and the pain worsens.
Family therapy is often helpful as it can allow everyone to come together and promote healing. The soldier can discuss the transition process in a safe place, and the family can learn more about how to make that transition as smooth as possible. Some families even learn more about codependency, and how family habits might play a role in alcoholism.
In addition to the therapies mentioned above, people with alcohol problems need to learn how to spot their triggers for drinking and control those situations when they take hold. Traditional addiction therapy often helps — especially in a group setting. In a support group, individuals have an opportunity to really think about what makes them drink. They can also practice techniques that can help them to handle their cravings without relapsing. In addition, meetings can provide alcoholics with the sense of community they may be missing since they’ve left active service.
A Long Process
Recovering from alcoholism takes time. It is not uncommon for people to spend months in active therapy for addiction. When this step is complete, it’s common for people to spend time in outpatient care, so they can taper out of intensive work and into community life. The work is hard, but in the end, it can be the best way in which a military member can build a life that’s healthy, happy, and free of addiction.
Neil H. shares his recovery story for Heroes in Recovery: “To those who are still struggling, I would say you’re not alone. Your addiction wants to keep you isolated. It is up to you, but you can join us in recovery and never be on your own again.”
If you’d like to get started, please contact us at Michael’s House. We provide both inpatient and outpatient treatment options in California, with easy access from the freeway. We can develop a customized healing program just for you that uses scientifically validated treatments. Please call 760-548-4032 now to find out more about our services.
1 Schumm, Jeremiah. “Alcohol and Stress in the Military.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed 10 January 2018.
2 “Corps To Combine Drug, Alcohol Screenings.” Marine Times. 3 August 2014.
4 “How Common is PTSD?” S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed 10 January 2018.