Nineteen years ago, my life looked perfect from the outside. I was a physician in the U.S. Air Force. I had just won an award as an outstanding officer. Good job, great family, happy life.

People were shocked to discover that I was addicted to pain pills. What started as a routine hernia repair surgery ended with a full-blown addiction to Percocet. I was working a demanding schedule; the pills gave me the relief, calmness and energy I craved.

For veterans, there’s a myth that addiction equals weakness, failure or a lack of morals, and for years it’s been “treated” with punitive measures. I was severely punished for my addiction — after all, that was the military way at the time — and I was discharged from the Air Force.

Thankfully, I found a new calling.

I’ve since worked with hundreds of veterans dealing with substance use disorder and addiction through both a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in West Virginia — one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic — and in private practice. The common thread uniting us all is that we had the courage to come forward, put aside our pride, and admit we needed help. Today, I am 19 years sober.

The data on the state of veteran mental health and substance abuse in America is daunting. Studies suggest only half of returning servicemembers who need treatment for their mental health actually seek care, and substance use continues to be a growing concern among both enlisted and retired members of the armed forces.

But there is hope. Today, we know addiction is a disease of the brain, one that can be diagnosed and treated with the right combination therapies. These include medication-assisted treatment (MAT), as well as holistic mental, spiritual and physical health programs proven to help patients break from the chains of addiction and live a substance-free life.

Veterans have much better access to care for both addiction and mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often at the root of a substance use disorder. Many VA clinics offer their own substance use treatment programs, and others refer patients to civilian treatment programs to make sure our veterans get the care, compassion, and recovery services they need to be productive members of civilian society.

Dr. Paul Little is medical director at Laguna Treatment Hospital, an American Addiction Centers treatment facility in Aliso Viejo, Calif. An Air Force veteran, he has spent more than half of his 20 years of experience in medicine focused on treating addiction.

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