Drug Use among Veterans

Drug use, particularly the illicit use of prescription drugs, is on the rise all over the country – the U.S. military notwithstanding. A 2008 Department of Defense Health Behavior Survey revealed that prescription drug abuse doubled among U.S. military personnel from 2002 to 2005 and almost tripled between 2005 and 2008[1].

Chris, a former injection drug user and a member of the military based out of Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, NC from 2005-2010, both witnessed and participated in drug use, including heroin and cocaine, prescription pills and alcohol. He started using in 2008, due in part to the stressful, rigid military lifestyle.

“Lots of guys use in the military because of the stress,” says Chris. “We had to get up at 6am and work long hours. Plus sometimes you feel stressed because you have so little control over your schedule. We never knew when we’d stop working.” A typical day in the military may include an hour of physical training from 6am-7am, followed by breakfast, more military training such as drills, weapons instruction and class time, lunch, more training, dinner, and drill sergeant time, with the day wrapping up anytime after 6pm. For some soldiers, the long hours, taxing physical and mental requirements, and “tough love” from superior officers, as well as the strain of being away from home, can create stressful environments.

According to studies by the Military Health System, the most common drugs are marijuana, stimulants such as cocaine, and prescription drugs, in particular Vicoden and OxyContin. Some soldiers may turn to drugs to deal with stress, to help with alertness, or even as an antidote to boredom during long stretches of inactivity. Others with a history of drug use may join the military in an effort to “get clean” and end up bringing their habits with them[2].

Chris explains that alcohol and prescription drug use are common among soldiers because they are legal and easy to get. He started using OxyContin from a military friend who had a prescription after back surgery, as well as Valium and Percocet, which Chris was given after a minor eye operation. 

The U.S. military has a zero tolerance policy on drug use. While there are some substance abuse programs available to military personnel, it is more common for a soldier caught with drugs to be given a dishonorable discharge. This “black mark” on a soldier’s record can follow them for years and make it difficult to find civilian jobs. 

Harm reduction programs are particularly concerned with drug use in the military because of the opportunities for sharing drug equipment that can lead to HIV and hepatitis C. Such programs can provide education on HIV and hepatitis C, safe sex supplies and opportunities for syringe exchange, wherein users can exchange used drug equipment for new, sterile equipment to reduce the spread of blood borne disease.

After leaving the military in 2010 when his 5-year contract ended, Chris moved to Eastern Carolina to get his associate’s degree. He’s interested in starting a syringe exchange program in Eastern Carolina to help other users stay safe and healthy while they are using.

[1] Military Health System, 2008 Health Related Behaviors Survey, December 2009.

[2] Ibid


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