Alcoholism in Active Duty Military Personnel

Last Updated: August 30, 2023

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Alcoholism among active duty servicemembers impacts all branches of the U.S. military. Without treatment, heavy alcohol use can have serious effects.

Alcoholism is a big health concern in the military. Misusing alcohol and being addicted to it can have serious consequences on the health, career and relationships of military personnel. It’s important to get help if you experience symptoms of alcoholism, especially after going through tough situations while serving.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Misuse in the Military

Servicemembers face an increased risk of developing an alcohol addiction due to many risk factors of military life. The longstanding drinking culture within the military, exposure to violence and trauma, acute and chronic stress, isolation from loved ones and availability of alcohol all contribute to a higher risk. 

Military personnel are at a higher risk of developing an alcohol addiction due to various factors related to their service. These factors include: 

  • The military’s drinking culture
  • Exposure to violence and trauma
  • Acute and chronic stress
  • Being away from loved ones
  • Easy access to alcohol.

Military Drinking Culture

For many servicemembers, drinking alcohol is a big part of spending time with others and building relationships. In the military, it’s common for people to drink a lot, especially when they have free time or after finishing a mission. Drinking with fellow soldiers is often seen as a way to relax, connect with others and cope with stress. According to a 2017 survey, people in the military drink more often and have more episodes of heavy drinking than people in any other industry.

Coping with Stress & Trauma

Military personnel have increased exposure to chronic and acute stress, violence and trauma. It’s not uncommon for individuals to turn to alcohol to help them cope with difficult experiences and mental health symptoms.

Soldiers are at a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service. Some may use alcohol to try to alleviate associated flashbacks, anxiety and distress. Although the individual may experience temporary relief from tension and distress, ongoing alcohol use typically worsens symptoms over time. 

Ease of Access

Servicemembers have easier access to alcohol than civilians in general. Some military bases have on-site places like enlisted clubs, officer clubs and bars where alcohol is available. Although not as popular nowadays, these spots provide convenience and a sense of community. This makes it easier for servicemembers to get alcohol while at work. 

In addition, the legal drinking age on military bases overseas is often lowered to match the host nation’s legal drinking age, which makes it even easier to get alcohol. Rules and policies exist to promote responsible drinking and prevent alcohol-related issues. Nevertheless, the proximity and unique dynamics of military life create an environment where it’s easier to access alcohol.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction in Active Duty Military Personnel

Each individual dealing with alcoholism may present with a unique collection of symptoms. Common signs of alcohol addiction include:

  • Increased tolerance to alcohol
  • Frequently becoming drunk or blacking out
  • Withdrawal symptoms — shaking, anxiety, irritability, insomnia or sweating when attempting to reduce or stop drinking
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Stopping activities they enjoyed
  • Relationship issues
  • Isolation 
  • Risk-taking behaviors  
  • Minimizing or hiding alcohol consumption 
  • Drinking alone
  • Prioritizing or focusing on alcohol
  • Physical health issues (e.g., liver damage, gastrointestinal issues or weakened immune system)

Consequences of Alcoholism in the Military

Alcohol misuse and addiction can seriously and negatively affect servicemembers. Individuals may face impacts on their health, relationships, career and daily functioning. 

Worsening of Mental Health Conditions

Military life is tough on mental health due to high-stress situations, traumatic experiences and prolonged deployments. Excessive drinking as a coping mechanism can make existing mental health issues worse or cause new ones to develop. Heavy drinking may:

  • Interfere with sleep
  • Impair judgment and decision-making
  • Negatively impact mood regulation
  • Increase rates of anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation among military personnel
  • Strain relationships
  • Lead to social isolation
  • Hinder the seeking of necessary mental health support 

Poor Work Performance

Misusing alcohol can have serious consequences for military personnel, affecting their careers in the long run. Those who struggle with alcohol addiction may miss work or duty due to excessive drinking. This can result in 

  • Absenteeism
  • Impaired judgment
  • Decreased performance, which can compromise the whole unit’s effectiveness. 

If an individual’s work performance continues to suffer, they may lose security clearance, become unfit to deploy, have to change positions or even face dishonorable discharge. 

Accidents & Injuries

Drinking alcohol impairs physical and mental abilities, which can lead to accidents and injuries. This is especially dangerous in a military context because it puts the safety of the servicemember and their unit at risk. Drinking and engaging in risky behavior like driving or handling weapons can lead to serious consequences, such as disciplinary actions and harm to military careers.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of behaviors to gain or maintain power and control in a current or previous intimate relationship. It can include physical, emotional, mental, financial, spiritual and sexual violence, as well as threats, coercion and isolation. While alcoholism can make this type of abuse worse, it’s important to note that drinking isn’t the cause of domestic violence. Instead, the abuser chooses to engage in abusive behaviors towards their partner.

Suicide Attempts

Alcoholism increases an individual’s risk of suicide. Research has found that servicemembers’ suicidal behaviors increase as the severity of their alcohol use worsens. One study involving Ohio National Guardsmen found those with PTSD and alcohol abuse were 7.5 times more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors. Another study reported that suicide rates among all branches of the U.S. military increased between 2005 and 2007, especially for National Guard and Army members.

Treatment Options for Active Military Personnel Struggling with Alcoholism

Alcohol addiction treatment can include a combination of services and approaches depending on the individual’s needs, living situation and severity of addiction. Rehab facilities typically offer medical detox, residential or inpatient services, partial hospitalization programs (PHP), intensive outpatient programs (IOP) and outpatient services. Individuals may utilize individual and family therapy, medications, psychoeducation groups, support groups, yoga, art therapy and more throughout recovery.

Help for Alcohol Addiction in Military Servicemembers

If you or a loved one are searching for support in dealing with alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village at Columbus is here to help. As part of the VA Community Care Network, we provide specialized support for military personnel and work with VA benefits. Our team of experts provides all levels of care, including inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and outpatient services, as well as EMDR and canine therapy. Reach out to a Recovery Advocate today, and they’ll guide you through the process. 

FAQs on Alcohol Addiction Amongst Military Personnel

What is the alcoholism rate in the military?

The 2018 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel found that over one-third of servicemembers reported binge drinking in the past 30 days. This report also found that almost 10% of military personnel surveyed were categorized as heavy drinkers. 

Which branch of the military has the highest rate of alcohol misuse?

A 2022 study found that the Marine Corps had the highest rate of AUD compared to other military branches.

Does the VA consider alcoholism a disability?

The VA may accept alcohol use disorder as a secondary service-connected condition for disability claims. For example, a servicemember’s AUD is linked to PTSD that developed due to their military service. The VA may also accept AUD disability claims on a secondary basis. This might look like an individual’s AUD causing a physical health issue, such as cirrhosis of the liver, that impairs their ability to work. 

What are the most common causes of alcoholism for servicemembers?

Alcoholism can be caused by various psychological, genetic, environmental and social factors. Individuals with a history of trauma or family members dealing with alcoholism are at a higher risk for developing AUD. Servicemembers are at an even higher risk due to exposure to stress and combat, mental health conditions, easy access to alcohol and social influences within the military culture. 

What are some signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in servicemembers?

Symptoms of alcohol misuse can include: 

  • Increased tolerance
  • Frequent intoxication or blackouts
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Relationship problems
  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviors
  • Secretive or isolated drinking patterns
  • Prioritizing alcohol
  • Physical health issues such as liver damage or a weakened immune system

How does alcoholism impact servicemembers?

Alcoholism can significantly affect military personnel, including impaired job performance, strained relationships and increased absenteeism, loss of security clearance, dishonorable discharge, inability to deploy and heightened risk for mental health issues, including suicidal ideation and completed suicides.

What barriers to treatment for alcohol addiction do servicemembers deal with?

Treatment barriers include:

  • Mental health and addiction stigma
  • Concerns about career implications and security clearances
  • Limited access to confidential and specialized treatment options
  • Fear of judgment from peers and superiors
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