Updated: Oct 26, 2021
By Ken Lebron, Director of Berks County’s Etchberger Veteran Center
More than one in 10 veterans seeking care at the U.S. Veteran’s Administration meet the criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, this figure is slightly higher than the rate among the general population. Reasons for that are multifold, ranging from the stresses of training and deployment, to military lifestyle and culture.
Military culture and alcohol use
Creation of the military, specifically the Marine Corp, has its roots embedded in the use of alcohol. The United States Marine Corps (then known as the Continental Marine Corps) was founded in 1775 in the Tun Tavern, in Philadelphia, a popular pub that became the base for recruiting and enlisting marines. Little did the founders of the Corps know that the drinking culture established at the organization's creation would have lasting ripple effects on military service members of all branches.
In the military, alcohol is still used today as a social tool. It is lauded as the drink of choice while on liberty, or on leave from military work or assignment. It often becomes a weekly means to de-stress from military life. And, it can be overused to “help” get a service member through a difficult workday, particularly among the most daring, and those at risk of punishment and separation under the United States Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Unfortunately, these customary rituals of alcohol use can continue long after separation from military service. What's more, alcohol can serve as a gateway drug that may lead to the use of other illicit substances.
Alcohol to self-medicate
Veterans often fail to disclose personal issues stemming from military service or related to substance use, either because they fear being perceived as “weak” or worry about repercussions, such as punishment.
Self-medication with alcohol and other drugs can become the means by which veterans deal with their problems. The results can be devastating, leading to martial discord or divorce, run-ins with the law, incarceration and homelessness, to name a few.
What should you do if you find yourself in this vicious cycle?
Talk to someone, ANYONE! Seek and ask for help from friends, family and/or neighbors. Like military operations, success relies on a team and teamwork to effectively accomplish the mission. Veterans Crisis Line can be a great start. See more resources below.
See a healthcare provider (VA or private) for care and treatment of all conditions (physical or psychological).
Identify resource for support from within the community or the Veterans Affairs.
Mental Health Resources for Veterans
VA Women Veterans Call Center - Call or text 1-855-829-6636 (M-F 8AM - 10PM & SAT 8AM - 6:30PM ET)
VA Caregiver Support Line - Call 1-855-260-3274 (M-F 8AM - 10PM & SAT 8AM - 5PM ET)
For emergency mental health care, you can also go directly to your local VA medical center 24/7 regardless of your discharge status or enrollment in other VA health care.
Service Access and Management Crisis Line of Berks County - 610-236-0530, 24/7
Local Vet Centers - Find a community-based counseling centers near you
VA Mental Health Services Guide - Sign up and access mental health services
Make The Connection - Information, resources, and Veteran to Veteran videos
RallyPoint - A digital platform for the military community
VA Mobil Apps - Tools for self-help, education and support following trauma
Together We Served - Find your battle buddies through unit pages
George W. Bush Institute - Connecting veterans with the support and services they need
Team Red, White & Blue - Local chapters provide opportunities for veterans to connect
Team Rubicon - A nonprofit that utilizes military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams
Elizabeth Dole Foundation Hidden Heroes - A community for military caregivers
American Red Cross Military Veteran Caregiver Network - Peer support and mentoring