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Veteran Addiction: The Military’s Struggle in US Opioid Epidemic

The fact that veteran addiction exists is not a shocking subject matter to most people. Military history has shown several forms of substance abuse within each major US war, from “Soldier’s Disease” (or morphine addiction) in World War I to heroin and opium addictions coming straight from the source in Vietnam. Rest assured, if there was a war, the advent of a drug craze came along with it.

Yet, in recent years, an alarming trend of prescription opioid painkiller addiction has gone on the rise since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing the US Department of Veterans Affairs to take notice.

After observing overprescription trends among doctors toward their active military and veteran patients, the VA took immediate action, sprouting up opioid awareness organizations and mandating restrictions on painkiller prescription hand-outs and their quantities. But as patients complained about extreme waitlists for doctor visitations and being treated like criminals for needing their medications while other VA doctors were still overprescribing soldiers, it became incredibly apparent to the VA that the US opioid epidemic was taking its toll on the military.

And so, the question became: With veteran addiction continuing to be on the rise, how do we make it stop?

Begins with Afghanistan, Ends with Addiction

While some people may want to imagine veteran addiction as a cliché story of “soldier goes to war, comes back with PTSD, and shoots up heroin to cope,” the situation is a lot more nuanced than that.

Rather, the downward spiral more often than not begins when a soldier gets hurt in battle.

“The troops, if they got hurt they’d just shove you a bag of pills,” said Michael McDonel, a veteran of the Arkansas National Guard who served in Iraq twice, in an interview with National Public Radio about veteran addiction and how it affected his family. “You never got a bottle and knew what was in it; you always got a baggie.”

What these “baggies” held was a cocktail of anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and anti-psychotic medications to keep a soldier moving and fighting, along with some sleeping pills to keep the night terrors away. They contained “everything from under the sun,” as McDonel would put it, “from Adderall to Percocet to hydrocodone, oxycodone, you name it.”

Though McDonel did not have an opiate addiction himself, his son, who was also enlisted in the Arkansas National Guard, was one of many soldiers who got hurt in battle and found themselves as another statistic for veteran addiction.

According to VA data, the number of veterans with an opioid-use disorder dramatically spiked 55 percent between 2010 and 2015, with about 68,000 veterans (or 13 percent of veterans taking opiate prescriptions) living with addiction. This is because opioid prescriptions from VA doctors had increased by 270 percent within a 12-year period, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s 2013 report analysis.

Statistics from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) showed that 1,130 patients were prescribed hydrocodone, an opioid painkiller, by the VA in 2001. Just 11 years later in 2012, hydrocodone prescriptions shot up to 47,586, amounting to a 4,100 percent increase.

Ret. Brigadier Gen. Becky Halstead, who pursued alternative medicine after dealing with excessive medication treatments for her chronic fibromyalgia for two years, believes the strain of two wars in the Middle East played a role in the increase. In an article with The American Conservative, she explains, “Prescription drugs have become the catchall—‘take this and if it makes you feel better, we’ll increase the dosage.’”

From post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) to losing limbs and getting third-degree burns, war battle can have gruesome consequences on soldiers, which can be overwhelming to a doctor with a waitlist of dozens to hundreds of soldiers needing treatment.

“We use prescription drugs because it is a quick fix,” Halstead asserted in the TAC article. “It started because our military was strained and it was just keeping more people propped up to do their jobs. But the long-term danger is we made people too dependent on it. It’s alarming to me.”

By the height of the VA’s opioid prescriptions in 2012, it became alarming to the military, too.

Read more from this series:

Part 1– “Veteran Addiction: The Military’s Struggle in US Epidemic”

Part 2“Veteran Addiction: The Fight Against Opiate Addiction”

Part 3 “Veteran Addiction: How Soldiers Lose the Mental Battle”

Part 4 – “Veteran Addiction: Hope for New Beginnings and Recovery”

At Ocean Breeze Recovery, we believe all clients should feel as comfortable as possible throughout their treatment process. Clients will enter a nonjudgmental environment with a trained staff ready to assist you toward recovery immediately. If you, or a loved one, are currently battling an addiction, you can call some of our treatment specialists, who are available 24-7, at (877) 704-0816 and discover new opportunities to a better life.

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