Can the Drinking Culture of the Military Lead to Alcoholism?
For most U.S. service members, alcohol is a part of the military experience. A 2019 study of the drinking habits of numerous professions found that members of the military consumed alcohol more days per year on average than did any other profession.1 In addition, the rates of driving under the influence and binge drinking both increased significantly for members of the armed forces over the past few years.1
But what leads to this culture of drinking in the military? Why does the military lead all professions in the number of days per year that include any alcohol consumption? In this article, you’ll learn about:
- Characteristics of military life that increase the likelihood of alcohol use in service members.
- Risk factors for alcohol abuse in veterans.
- The symptoms of alcoholism.
- Treatment for veterans struggling with alcohol use disorders.
Alcohol Use and Military Service
Numerous studies have attempted to understand the unique characteristics of military life that can contribute to alcohol use. Some factors include:
- Workplace culture. The camaraderie and cohesion established by tightly knit teams spending a lot of time together contribute to shared beliefs about several issues, including norms around how acceptable it is to consume alcohol. The concept of going on leave and drinking heavily during this time is almost a ritual among service members. This pattern of going on leave and binge drinking is seen as acceptable.2
- Stress and the use of unhealthy coping mechanisms. The very real threat of death, the impact of PTSD, and sexual assault rates among military service personnel have all been linked to excessive drinking among members of the U.S. military.3
- Ease of access to alcohol. Alcohol is readily available on and near bases, and in many foreign countries where sailors and soldiers are deployed, there is no minimum drinking age. Thus, 18-year-old service members can drink freely.2
Veterans Are at a High Risk for Alcohol Abuse
As noted above, the use of alcohol in active-duty military is high. Alcoholism in veterans is a serious public health issue with a number of contributing factors.
When a person serves in the military for a few years, the use of alcohol can become a habit that may be reinforced by military culture, which sees alcohol use as normal and commonplace. Once a person leaves the military, the patterns have become habitual in many cases. Consequently, many veterans continue drinking once they have left active duty.
In addition, PTSD and alcohol abuse can often co-occur, with PTSD resulting from combat often leading to increased rates of alcohol consumption.4
Furthermore, many veterans are coping with:4, 5
- Chronic pain, often at higher rates than the civilian population.
- PTSD from other forms of trauma like sexual assault.
- High rates of traumatic brain injuries.
Many veterans have a difficult time adjusting to the reentry into civilian life. It’s an issue that requires a multifaceted approach to manage successfully.
The reality is that almost 50,000 veterans in the U.S. are homeless, and many have difficulty reentering the job market and adjusting to life outside of a rule-based, regimented, and tightly knit group of people working together as a team. These factors can contribute to mental health problems and increased alcohol and drug use among veterans.6
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a disease with a range of symptoms. If someone experiences 2 or more of the following symptoms in a 12-month period they can be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder:7
- Drinking more alcohol than intended.
- Attempts to cut back or control the use of alcohol that were unsuccessful.
- A great deal of time is spent obtaining, using, or recovering from alcohol.
- Cravings and urges to use that are hard to deal with.
- Alcohol use causes a person to be unable to fulfill their responsibilities at home or work.
- Continued use of alcohol even when it causes family or social problems.
- Loss of interests in activities and hobbies because of alcohol.
- Using alcohol, even when it is dangerous, such as before getting behind the wheel.
- Using alcohol, despite knowing it worsens a physical or mental condition.
- Tolerance, which means the person needs more and more alcohol to feel its effects.
- Withdrawal, in which a person has physical symptoms when alcohol use is stopped.
Some people misuse alcohol but do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of alcoholism. Furthermore, some people binge drink, which means they consume multiple drinks on one occasion but do this periodically, not regularly. While this pattern can be unhealthy, it does not always fit the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Binge drinking is, however, a risk factor for an alcohol use disorder.
Alcoholism Treatment for Veterans
Numerous alcohol treatment options are available for veterans. The VA is a good place to start if you are looking for help for alcohol abuse for yourself or trying to find help for your loved one. The VA offers:
- Short-term counseling.
- Intensive outpatient counseling.
- Residential treatment.
- Medication-assisted treatment.
- Self-help groups.
- Family counseling.
VA alcohol rehab may not be available in every community. The VA has connections to many community care providers, who provide treatment in a veteran’s community when there is not a VA alcohol treatment program close by or when a needed service cannot be obtained at a local VA facility.
Some alcohol rehab services are not available in all areas, so the VA may refer you to a local treatment program to provide services.
Specialized programs are available for veterans seeking treatment for alcohol abuse. Although River Oaks Treatment Center doesn’t offer veteran-specific programming, other American Addiction Centers locations do.
Many of the staff members in these programs are veterans themselves, which provides a unique perspective and understanding of the challenges facing veterans. In addition, if you or your loved one is coping with a mental health disorder, Salute to Recovery treats both your alcohol use disorder and any co-occurring mental health disorders.
While alcohol use among military personnel and veterans is a common and serious issue, there is hope. No matter how severe the alcohol problem has become for you or your loved one, treatment can work and get you or your loved one on the path to recovery from alcoholism.
- Simkins, J. (2019). The military leads all other professions in the number of days spent drinking per year, study claims. Military Times.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Use and Preventing Alcohol-Related Problems Among Young Adults in the Military.
- Schumm, J. A., & Chard, K. M. (2012). Alcohol and stress in the military. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 34(4), 401.
- Teeters, J. B., Lancaster, C. L., Brown, D. G., & Back, S. E. (2017). Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 8, 69–77.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2019). Pain: U.S. military and veterans.
- Olenick, M., Flowers, M., & Diaz, V. J. (2015). US veterans and their unique issues: enhancing health care professional awareness.Advances in Medical Education and Practice, 6, 635–639.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.