Tragically, veterans are often among the forgotten and overlooked members of our society. They have toiled and served their country, sometimes fighting in wars to defend this nation, only to find themselves worse off than when they left. Life as a returning civilian can be quite challenging and disappointing, to say the least, and many veterans’ lives after returning from military deployment change for the worst. People who experience acute stress like newly returning veterans face are vulnerable to drug use and eventual abuse. Acute stressors like job loss, the death of loved ones, physical injury or illness, divorce or separation, and financial distress are quite traumatic and oftentimes the triggers that lead to drugs.
Marriages, long under stress from prolonged military separation and loneliness, often fold under the pressure. Families fall apart when deployed soldiers return home physically, psychologically and emotionally damaged. Employment isn’t as readily available as they might like, so even finances may suffer. Their daily lives of constant activity and danger dwindle down to calmer days, idleness, depression and boredom. To cope, many veterans turn to drugs and alcohol and other addictions, which lead to further problems. Without a good support system, veterans may consequently even find themselves incarcerated or homeless.
Though every case may be different, veterans who served in older wars – like the Vietnam War, Korean War or World War II, for example – seem to suffer the most with drug and alcohol addictions and account for the majority of homeless veterans. Veterans who served more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Desert Storm are also among the homeless (in smaller numbers) and they tend to struggle primarily with psychological issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, though drug abuse is sometimes a factor as well. The instance of drug abuse among this new age of war veterans has declined significantly compared to older eras, while alcohol and prescription drug abuse has increased. I have worked with Vietnam vets in the last two years who are still having nightmares from their experiences. One of them feels very alone and finds that watching the tv show mash helps. Please encourage vets that you may know who are struggling to call an counselor to try to work with the unresolved feelings.
What ends up occurring in many cases where prescription painkillers and other prescription drugs are given to veterans is that the pains or nightmares they’re experiencing aren’t assuaged nearly enough. They begin to take more and more of the drugs in an attempt to stifle their pain, and before they know it, they’re addicted. As tolerance is built up and more relief is sought, they may advance to the next level of what they believe to be “self-treatment” by taking more powerful, illegal drugs like methamphetamines, heroin or cocaine. The temporary euphoria, numbness and disconnect from reality that these drugs create is literally intoxicating and irresistible to many veterans who live daily with pain, nightmares, depression and loss.
Were it not for the work of Veterans Affairs (VA) and organizations that care about the plight of veterans, many more of our returning soldiers would be lost to the streets and prisons as a result of their drug addiction. The good thing is that VA offers support and rehabilitation even to those veterans who actually do wind up incarcerated or homeless, who have been driven there due to their out of control drug addictions. At VA facilities, veterans who want to quit drugs may typically undergo detoxification, in-house and outpatient counseling, group therapy, continuing treatment to counter potential relapses, family counseling and support, and temporary housing. Care focuses on getting to the root of what caused the addiction in the first place and helping veterans to stay drug free.