Veterans and Addiction Risk

4 Min Read

Veteran's Boots and Backpack Next to Legs

Addiction is a widespread issue in today’s society, and the problem affects veterans at higher rates than other populations. According to data from the VA, about 1 in 10 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have had problems with alcohol or other addictive substances.

Veterans may turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope with overwhelming challenges after they return home. They may have trouble readjusting to civilian life, and they still may be haunted by traumatic events they witnessed during their service.

When veterans rely on alcohol and drugs to curb their problems, this can actually make things worse.

Addictions can lead to:

  • Cancer
  • Heart problems
  • Liver failure
  • Death

Why Are Veterans at Risk of Addiction?

According to the VA, veterans are at risk of addiction — also known as substance use disorder (SUD) — if they experience mental health problems after their service.

Veterans are at a higher risk of mental health problems such as:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a huge mental health problem facing veterans and can also lead to addiction. Veterans often develop PTSD after experiencing traumatic events in combat.

PTSD causes troubling symptoms such as: 

  • Being easily startled
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased irritability
  • Repeated nightmares and sleeping issues
  • Traumatic flashbacks

To deal with these symptoms, veterans often use — and abuse — addictive substances. For this reason, PTSD and addiction often occur alongside one another.

According to the VA, almost 1 in 3 veterans who have PTSD also suffer from addiction.


Depression is another common problem that veterans face. According to the VA, about 1 in 5 veterans who visited VA hospitals had notable symptoms of depression.

Veterans are at risk of depression if they experienced stress, such as intense combat situations. However, the VA also notes that factors such as genetics and other medical conditions can increase the risk of depression.

Symptoms of depression include: 

  • Fatigue and slower reaction times
  • Feelings of worthlessness, anger and guilt
  • Loss of interest in major activities
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

Depression is also related to PTSD. According to the Mayo Clinic, complications from PTSD can lead to depression.

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Veterans and Addiction Risk

Veterans have a higher risk of abusing legal substances — such as alcohol, prescription medication and tobacco products — than non-veterans. In some cases, they may also turn to illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin.

Veterans and Alcohol Addiction

According to a 2017 study, military veterans are more likely to suffer from alcohol addiction than any other type of drug. Additionally, veterans are more likely to use alcohol than non-veterans, especially veterans who have seen high military combat.

The VA notes that veterans are highly likely to binge drink. These factors put veterans at risk of long-term alcohol addiction — especially if they are suffering from PTSD or depression.

Alcohol addiction can lead to: 

  • Acute liver failure
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Neurological damage

Veterans and Tobacco Addiction

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 3 out of 10 U.S. military veterans use tobacco products, most notably cigarettes. Veterans are more likely to smoke than civilians, in part because there is a long-term history of cigarette use in the military.

The VA also notes that twice as many veterans with PTSD smoke nicotine products than those without.

Excessive tobacco use can lead to: 

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Gum disease and tooth loss
  • Heart disease
  • Lung, tongue and mouth cancer

Recent studies suggest that smoking cigarettes accounts for 50% of all cancer deaths in veterans who did not quit smoking.

Veterans and Prescription Medications

Studies have noted that veterans are increasingly misusing prescription drugs, such as opioids like OxyContin. These drugs are often prescribed to manage symptoms of PTSD and other mental health conditions. Studies have noted that veterans with PTSD, in particular, are more likely to get prescribed higher doses of drugs opioids.

Veterans and Illegal Drugs

In some cases, veterans may turn to highly dangerous — and illegal — drugs like cocaine and heroin. These drugs can be incredibly addictive and destructive to a veteran’s mental and physical health.

Heroin use can cause liver and kidney disease and needle-based infections like hepatitis C. Cocaine use can lead to heart attacks, seizures and strokes. Use of these drugs can also worsen existing mental health conditions.

VA Addiction Resources for Veterans

Veterans can receive medical treatment and long-term support for their addiction through the VA Health Care System. These resources support veterans on every step of their journey to recovery.

VA Medical Treatment

Veterans can receive medical treatment for their addiction from VA medical centers across the country.

Treatment for an addiction first starts by cleansing drugs from the body. This is known as a detox. Withdrawal symptoms appear during a detox, but they can be managed with proper medical care in most cases.

After the detox is successful, veterans can work on long-term recovery through rehabilitation. Veterans can attend inpatient VA rehab programs or recover at home through a medically supervised outpatient program.

VA Community Care

In some cases, veterans suffering from an addiction may be able to receive care from local health care providers if they do not live close to a VA-affiliated health care center.

Through the MISSION Act, which went into effect in June of 2019, veterans can use VA Health Care to receive medical treatment from non-VA providers where they live. This may help veterans get treatment for their addiction faster if they do not live near a VA medical center.

Counseling Services

Counseling services can help patients work through their addiction problems with help from a licensed mental health professional. Counseling sessions can take place one-on-one, with families or in group settings with other veterans who are facing addiction. These sessions may take place in a hospital or in an outpatient setting.

The VA offers counseling to help veterans overcome alcohol, tobacco and other drug addictions. These sessions can take place in person, over the phone or sometimes through the internet.


VA health care providers will use medications to assist with the detoxification process and manage long-term drug cravings. Many medications are available to curb various types of addictions.

These medications include: 

  • Naloxone: This drug is used to treat those who overdose on heroin or prescription opioids. In these cases, Naloxone can be a lifesaver.
  • Nicotine Replacements: Nicotine replacement patches allow patients to transition to a life without tobacco. Nicotine replacement may come in the form of gum, lozenges or arm patches.
  • Methadone: Methadone can be used to treat chronic opioid addiction. However, it can also be addictive. Doctors administer methadone carefully to prevent this.
  • Bupropion: This medication may be used to help patients with tobacco addiction as well as depression.

Accessing VA Addiction Resources

Veterans went above and beyond in serving the United States of America. They do not deserve to suffer from an addiction. Fortunately, by accessing these medical resources, they have a better chance of achieving long-term sobriety.

To get access to VA addiction resources, veterans must be enrolled in VA Health Care. The patient advocates at the Mesothelioma Veterans Center have helped hundreds of veterans receive VA Health Care and other benefits.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.