USA Today recently published an article about cases of addiction in the military, referencing a general who talked to a group of physicians about his dependence on pain medications and the frequency of substance abuse in the military. Lt. Gen. David Fridovich foresees, “An epidemic of chronic pain sweeping through the US military after a decade of continuous war.” He goes on to predict the next generation of veterans will have “some bad habits.” But, haven’t the veterans coming out of wars already had bad habits? Hasn’t the US military known that addiction among veterans is extremely high?
According to the USA Today article, substance abuse diagnoses and treatment among the military population has doubled in the past few years. Reports show one-third of military patients have an addiction to drugs. So, is this epidemic new? Is it the consequence of Iraq and Afghanistan?
In the 1960s, the army members’ drug of choice was marijuana. At the peak, over 1,000 military arrests were made weekly. In 1968, the US government took initiative and mandated the army to respond to the rise in marijuana use, increase education and treatment efforts. By the 1980s, 25% of the military members had used illegal substances. Post-war periods appear to decrease the addiction rates – by 1990, the rate dropped to 3%.
In 1990, the National Vietnam Readjustment Study on Vietnam veterans showed 73% of the male participants diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also met criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. According to Dr. John Straznickas, clinical teams working with Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korean veterans consistently see high correlations between PTSD and addiction. Dr. Straznickas wrote an article, “A Soldiers Heart and Mind: Addiction in Veterans,” which takes an in-depth look at the effects of war and how addiction is present in a large number of military personnel.
This co-morbidity between PTSD and addiction plays a major role in a soldier’s susceptibility for getting hooked on drugs or alcohol. Dr. Straznickas reports that 16-17% of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with mental health issues, including PTSD, and therefore, it can be assumed that a large percentage of those soldiers have an addiction problem.
The Pentagon reports that 3.7 million doses of narcotics were prescribed between 2001 and 2009. In 2010, there were 3.5 million doses of narcotics given. Substance abuse diagnoses increased 50% from 2005 to 2009, which means 40,000 troops had a reported addiction problem. Lt. Gen. Fridovich apparently sees room for improvement and is hopeful that the US Army will begin addressing addiction as a serious problem.
Legislation has been introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) that would increase treatment efforts and health-care benefits to military families. McCaskill states, “Substance abuse is a medical problem and to think they can’t get the help they need – or worse, receive punishment instead of treatment – is outrageous.”
The Navy Times reports that The Drug Policy Alliance is attempting to get government agencies to increase prevention efforts for drug overdoses and protocols for the veterans abusing substances and prescription medications, as well as allowing for medication-assisted therapies to treat those people with pain disorders.
Last year, the Army reported the highest suicide rate according to Veterans for Common Sense. When will this epidemic be considered a true problem? When will the stigma be replaced with education and reform for the members of the military? US military men and women protect America – when will we begin protecting them?