Scientists have known for a long time that there is a strong link between trauma and substance abuse. We also know that the things our men and women in uniform experience while serving in the military can be extremely traumatic, especially during active duty. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that veterans may struggle with substance use and addiction.

Popular Substances Among Military

Opioids in particular have been increasing in use among active duty and retired military in the last 20 years, though alcohol and tobacco have been long-term issues for current and former military, according to The fact that alcohol and tobacco are legal simply make addiction to them more easy to overlook, though no less potentially fatal.


One reason that some trauma survivors turn to substances is to alleviate their mental health struggles. According to the VA:

  • More than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD also struggle with substance use disorder
  • Nearly a third of veterans being treated for substance use disorder also had PTSD.
  • About twice as many veterans with PTSD smoke cigarettes, compared to veterans without PTSD.
  • Veterans with PTSD frequently engage in binge drinking, where they consume a large volume of alcohol in a short period of time.

Chronic Pain

In addition to veterans potentially trying to address emotional or mental health struggles through substance use, they may also experience chronic physical pain from injuries sustained during service. As many as two-thirds of veterans report pain, with nine percent indicating the pain is severe. This is about three percent higher than the general population. As a result, veterans may be prescribed and become addicted to opiates, if care is not taken to prevent such an outcome. Excess alcohol use may also result from a person trying to manage chronic pain.

Co-Occurring Diagnoses

When a person struggles with more than one condition at a time, such as PTSD and substance use disorder, this is referred to as co-occurring or comorbid conditions. In this case, it is important that both conditions be simultaneously for optimal results. This is especially important for veterans, as increased substance use in people with mental illnesses has been linked to substantially increased suicidality. About 30 percent of Army suicides and 45 percent of Army suicide attempts have involved alcohol or drug use, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The Same, But Different

In some ways, trauma is trauma, and it is possible to empathize with the pain of another person even if it is different from one’s own pain. On the other hand, the struggles that veterans face are unique, in that they have had experiences that people who have never served in the armed forces may struggle to understand. Veterans may experience difficult and complicated feelings about their time in the service that they only feel comfortable discussing with other veterans.

For this reason, peer support is becoming more and more popular for veterans. By training a veteran who has worked through their trauma and/or addiction to become a support for a veteran who is still working through theirs, peer support provides veterans with an ally and advocate that cannot be replicated through other means.

What Is Available for Veterans in Recovery?

The Department of Veterans Affairs offers several options to help veterans on their substance abuse recovery journey. These include:

  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) – methadone, buprenorphine, nicotine patches, etc.
  • Short-term outpatient counseling
  • Intensive Outpatient substance abuse treatment (IOP)
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Inpatient treatment for substance use disorder
  • Relapse prevention

The VA webpage linked above also has information on how to get services started and how to qualify for support, if a veteran is not already receiving benefits.

What We Are Doing

Safe Harbor is a member of the VA’s Community Care Network, which utilizes veterans’ benefits to cover the cost of substance abuse treatment.

Safe Harbor Recovery Center is also eager to roll out our new Tactical Recovery Program. Staff at Safe Harbor have completed specialized training to help them better assist service members in their substance use recovery journeys. Safe Harbor is also proud to have veterans among our valued team members.

Should a veteran wish to participate in services at Safe Harbor while utilizing a service dog, both the veteran and their canine companion are welcome.

If you are a veteran in need of support or you know of a veteran who is struggling, Safe Harbor is here to help.

Are you looking for addiction treatment for Veterans in Virginia? For more information about programs at Safe Harbor Recovery Center, contact us at (888) 932-2304. We are ready to help you make a new beginning.