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Why Vets Drink: Improving Treatment for Alcohol & Substance Abuse

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - This year nearly 400 veterans will seek help for alcohol dependence and drug abuse at the VA Medical Center in Lexington.

“We’ll meet individually with the veterans when they first come in the program, kind of assess where they’re at, get a feel for what they need for what type of care,” says Jeffrey Morrison,  a licensed clinical social worker at the VA.

The hospital offers a 28-day inpatient detox program, intensive outpatient treatment, and an after-care program. Morrison says many vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan say they start drinking to help them sleep at night.

“Their tolerance grows, the need to take in more and more alcohol or drugs to get that sense of ease that they used to get. And then before long they’re really addicted.”

A Fixable Problem?

Morrison says many veterans want to learn to control their drinking without having to give it up completely.

“In reality that may not be an option but they want to try it so we kind of have to start where they are.”

The Department of Defense, through an order from Congress, recently commissioned a study to assess current alcohol and substance abuse policies. It found that nearly half of active duty personnel engaged in binge drinking.

“This is a big problem, but it’s also fixable. There’s a lot that they could do right from the first day in the military,” says Dr. Charles O’Brien, chair of the research team that wrote the report. 

There are prevention and screening programs in place, but O'Brien says they often fall short of identifying at-risk service members. He suggests screeners need to talk more with recruits and enlistees.

“It’s a health issue and so they should have it as part of their annual physical. They ought to be asking questions about the substance use and getting them into treatment right away.”

Researchers also recommend that the effectiveness of military drug and alcohol programs -- which differ from branch to branch-- be evaluated more consistently so they actually make a difference for service members.

Ready to Open Up

Army National Guard Sgt. Matt McKenzie, 28, says after serving two tours in Iraq, he tuned out the mandatory post-deployment and suicide prevention seminars.

“To come home and have somebody that’s not been in that situation to say ‘Well tell me how you’re feeling.’ I tell you how I’m feeling. I’m feeling like walking out of here and getting a fifth of Jack and relaxing because you are not helping any of this.”

Eric, 51, is an active member in Alcoholics Anonymous, so he asked that only his first name be used in this story. For him sobriety came some two decades after he left the Army. He regularly attends civilian AA meetings, but says the ones at the VA that are just for veterans can allow for more open conversation.

“There feels like there’s a closer intimacy there because there’s that fellowship that we all served and we were all under the same type of thing.”

But Sgt. McKenzie says getting vets to open up about their addictions and talk about their feelings is often a hard thing to do.

“They’re trying to reach out to the service members. It’s up to the service member to extend that hand back and say ‘yes, I need help.’ But that’s the downside to the military is they train you to be an individual.”

The military appears ready to make changes, with talks underway to improve healthcare coverage and options for treatment.  

This story is the second in a two-part series about alcohol and substance abuse in the military from WUKY and NPR's Impact of War project.

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