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How to fight substance misuse in the military community

In November, we celebrate Veterans Day and National Veterans and Military Families Month, a time to honor the brave men and women who have served in our armed forces. While it’s important to commemorate all that veterans have achieved for our country, this is also a time to remember the struggles many of our military comrades face year-round, including substance misuse and the stigma surrounding it.

Drug overdoses have skyrocketed in the last year, with a record-breaking 100,306 overdose deaths in the United States between April 2020 and April 2021. Through our efforts as leaders of two national nonprofits working to combat substance use disorders, we know that active military and veterans are particularly vulnerable to drug misuse. More than 1 in 10 veterans seeking care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, and veterans are twice as likely to die of an accidental overdose than the general U.S. population.

A chronic pain epidemic among veterans is a major contributing factor; it affects one-third of people cared for by the VA health system. A high percentage of veterans often return to civilian life dealing with physical injuries and pain that seriously affect their quality of life. The near-miraculous improvements in battlefield medical care that have saved thousands of servicemembers’ lives during our nation’s recent conflicts, along with the types of wounds suffered, have led to an increased propensity for chronic pain among veterans.

Chronic pain may also be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the VA, more than 2 in 10 veterans experiencing PTSD also struggle with substance misuse. In order to cope with symptoms of ongoing pain or PTSD, many people turn to drinking heavily, or misusing pain medications or illegal substances.

To address this issue, our military community needs to overcome stigma, which in our view is public enemy number one in the complex effort required to overcome substance dependence. Rather than seeing addiction as a disease, we are much more likely to see it as a shameful personal moral failing. Moreover, the high value military culture places on self-reliance — which serves us so well on the battlefield — can make active military and veterans reluctant to ask for help.

Although the military reflects broader societal attitudes toward addiction, by our very nature we also have a history of taking the lead in overcoming complex societal issues. We can — and must — do it again.

We’ve seen firsthand how veterans’ recovery and support groups and other programs are powerful tools to help people open up about their struggles and connect with peers. While addiction treatment and prevention tools aimed at the unique military experience do exist, not everyone has a program easily accessible in their own community. We encourage local, state and federal leaders to commit funding to create more veteran-specific addiction resources.

A great starting point for community leaders is CADCA’s online toolkit Strategies for Addressing Substance Use and Misuse in Veteran Populations. CADCA partnered with McKesson to create easy-to-implement strategies — from sharing educational materials to reducing barriers to mental health services — to help achieve lasting change for military communities.

Military leaders should also play a more active role in increasing awareness of both the true nature of addiction as a disease and the resources available to address it. Whether leaders are serving or retired, a key element of military service should be caring for our own community. We’re honored to use our own military experience to call attention to these pressing issues. Imagine the impact if leaders up and down the chain of command committed to learning about substance abuse, and then speaking out about it in a way that reduces stigma.

One example of state-level leadership is the Michigan National Guard’s initiative to provide drug disposal resources to its Guard members. Substance misuse often starts in the home medicine cabinet, with nearly 80% of heroin users first misusing prescription medications. The Michigan Guard partnered with SAFE Project to provide Deterra at-home drug deactivation pouches to every soldier and airman during annual health exams to help them safely eliminate excess medications in their homes.

By making addiction and recovery a regular part of conversations, we can normalize these challenges and decrease the associated stigma. In the end, we hope our community can become equally comfortable sharing stories of personal struggle and military achievment. By speaking out, we can prevent substance misuse from happening in the first place, and encourage more military men and women to seek help when they need it.

Retired Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld is co-founder of SAFE (Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic) Project and served 37 years in the U.S. Navy, including as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Retired Maj. Gen. Barrye Price is president and CEO of CADCA (Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America) and served 31 years in the U.S. Army.

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