Are You a Veteran Struggling with Alcohol Abuse? Alcoholism in Active Duty Military Personnel Risk Factors, Signs & Treatment Options

Last Updated: February 1, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Although alcoholism in the military is a common problem, quality treatment can help military personnel struggling with alcohol addiction.

We often hear about alcohol misuse among veterans when they return to civilian life after a deployment, but even active duty personnel can struggle with alcohol addiction. Several risk factors contribute to alcohol misuse in the military, but treatment is available. 

Risk Factors for Alcohol Misuse in the Military

Military life comes with unique stressors. Active duty members may be pulled away from their families or secluded on a military base. While on duty, service members are exposed to long hours and, in some cases, serious injury or the threat of death. Alcohol can become a way of coping with the stress that comes with military life, leading to risk factors for military alcohol misuse. 

Military Drinking Culture

Heavy drinking can be a part of military culture. Research has shown that active duty members are likely to drink for recreation and bonding and to relieve the stress that comes with the job. Within this culture, alcohol misuse can seem normalized, so those struggling do not recognize that they’ve developed a drinking problem. 

Coping with Stress & Trauma

Alcohol misuse can also become a way to cope with stress and trauma. Veterans who experience a larger number of traumatic events are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is the clinical term for alcohol addiction. Heavy alcohol use can help veterans mask painful feelings associated with trauma. 

Ease of Access

While testing positive for illicit drugs can lead to criminal charges and a dishonorable discharge for active-duty military members, drinking alcohol does not come with the same risk. In fact, alcohol is readily available in military culture, and 30% of active-duty military personnel are binge drinkers, which is higher than in the general population. 

Signs of Alcohol Addiction in Active Duty Military Personnel

Military members who have fallen victim to alcohol addiction will likely show some warning signs. These can include:

  • Spending a large amount of money on alcohol
  • Being unable to cut back on drinking
  • Changes in behavior, which can include mood swings and irritable or aggressive behavior
  • Struggling to control the amount of alcohol you drink 
  • Drinking to the point of putting oneself in danger, which can include blackouts or driving under the influence
  • Withdrawing from other hobbies and activities because of preoccupation with alcohol 

Consequences of Alcoholism in the Military

Alcohol misuse may be accepted in military culture, but that doesn’t mean it is without consequences. Active duty personnel who use alcohol to cope will likely experience negative effects, especially if they develop an alcohol addiction. 

Worsening of Mental Health Conditions

While veterans may begin drinking to cope with trauma, over time, alcohol misuse leads to worsening mental health. Research with military populations has found that heavy drinking is associated with poor mental health. With repeated alcohol misuse, a veteran is likely to become addicted, which causes a decline in mental and emotional well-being. 

Poor Work Performance

Continuing to drink, even when it interferes with your work performance, is one of the signs of an AUD. Veterans who are addicted to alcohol will likely have difficulty performing their work duties as alcohol becomes their focus. 

Accidents & Injuries

Alcohol misuse increases the risk of accidents and injuries, and active duty military personnel may be especially at risk, given the nature of their work. Common accidents and injuries can include those from:

  • Motor vehicle crashes
  • Falls
  • Drowning 
  • Burns 

Domestic Violence

Alcohol misuse has been linked to domestic violence in military service members. Among male service members with PTSD, 27.5% report physical harm against their partners, and 91% report psychological violence. Military members who use alcohol to cope with PTSD symptoms are also at an increased risk of domestic violence. 

Suicide Attempts

Alcohol misuse in veterans increases the risk of suicide. Studies have found that veterans with an AUD are just over four times as likely as those without to attempt suicide at some point during their lives. This provides more evidence that alcohol misuse can make mental health among service members worse.

Veteran Recovery Is Our Mission

Our Veteran Advocates can help you navigate your VA health insurance and get you the help you need. At The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper, our FORTITUDE specialty track for veterans and first responders offers:


  • Exclusive group therapy sessions with your peers
  • Experienced clinicians trained in military culture and veteran-specific care
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders to treat addiction and mental health disorders together  
  • EMDR: A revolutionary treatment that alleviates trauma symptoms

Treatment Options for Active Military Personnel Struggling With Alcoholism

The good news is that quality treatment is available for military personnel with alcohol addiction. An AUD is often treated with individual and group therapy and medications to help with withdrawal and cravings. Veterans with alcohol addictions may need to enter a medical detox program to help them cope with withdrawal symptoms. After completing medical detox, transferring into an ongoing rehab program is important.

Help for Alcohol Addiction in Military Service Members 

If you’re a military service member seeking alcohol addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. Our New Jersey rehab center is a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer group therapy specifically for trauma. Our team is trained in helping veterans, so we are prepared to provide the support you need to heal. Verify your insurance benefits today so you can get started with treatment. 

FAQs on Alcohol Addiction Amongst Military Personnel 

What is the alcoholism rate in the military?

The rate of AUD in military populations can differ among studies and people, but research gives us a general idea of the prevalence of AUD in service members. A nationally representative survey of over 3,000 veterans found that 42.2% had an AUD at some point during their lives, and 14.8% showed symptoms of an AUD within the year before the survey.

Another study with active duty service members found that 6.45–10.50 per 1,000 people abused alcohol, and 5.21–7.11 per 1,000 met the criteria for alcohol dependence. 

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

Military research shows that members of the Marine Corps have the highest rate of AUD. 

Does the VA consider alcoholism a disability?

Veterans who are hurt or ill due to their military service or experiencing worsening health in the service can be eligible for disability benefits through the VA. To become eligible, you must show documentation of the disability and file a claim for disability compensation. Mental health conditions that may qualify a veteran to receive disability benefits may include: 

  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 

If you develop an alcohol use disorder with PTSD from your service, you may be able to get benefits, but veterans aren’t generally eligible for disability benefits based on alcohol use alone. Contact the VA for more information. 

What are the most common causes of alcoholism for service members?

Some of the risk factors for AUD in military members include military culture, easy access to alcohol and mental health conditions like PTSD. 

What are some signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in service members? 

Common signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse in service members include: 

  • Mood swings
  • Behavior changes
  • Difficulty cutting back on alcohol use
  • Spending a significant amount of time drinking
  • Withdrawing from other activities
  • Drinking to the point of blackout 
  • Struggling to control the amount of alcohol consumed 

How does alcoholism impact service members?

Alcohol misuse and addiction in service members are linked to many negative effects, including: 

  • Poor mental health
  • Declining job performance 
  • Increased risk of suicide and domestic violence
  • More accidents and injuries 

What barriers to treatment for alcohol addiction do service members deal with? 

Treatment is helpful for military service members with alcohol addiction, but this population may not always receive the help they need to overcome alcohol misuse. Common treatment barriers in this population include:

  • Being emotionally unprepared to enter treatment
  • Feeling that treatment isn’t needed
  • Hesitation to talk to someone
  • Fear of being labeled, getting in trouble or lacking time to seek care

Sources

Dworkin, Emily; Bergman, Hannah; Walton, Thomas; Walker, Denise; Kaysen, Debra. “Co-Occurring Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Use Disorder in U.S. Military and Veteran Populations.” Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

Fuehrlein, Brian; Mota, Natalie; Arias, Albert; Trevisan, Louis; Kachadourian, Lorig; Krystal, John; Southwick, Steven; Pietrzak, Robert. “The burden of alcohol use disorders in US military veterans: results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study.” Addiction, October 2016. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

McDevitt-Murphy; Meghan; Fields, Jordan; Monahan, Christopher; Bracken, Katherine. “Drinking motives among heavy-drinking veterans with and without posttraumatic stress disorder.” Addiction Research & Theory, 2015. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “General Risk of Substance Use Disorders.” October 23, 2019. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2023. Accessed June 15, 2023.

Goodwin; S. Norton; N.T. Fear; M. Jones; L. Hull; S. Wessely; R. Rona. “Trajectories of alcohol use in the UK military and associations with mental health.” Addictive Behaviors, December 2017. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Excessive Alcohol Use.” July 11, 2022. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

Trevillion, Kylee; Williamson, Emma; Thandi, Gursimran; Borschmann, Rohan; Oram, Sian; Howard, Louise. “A systematic review of mental disorders and perpetration of domestic violence among military populations.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 2015. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

Judkins, Jason; Smith, Kendra; Moore, Brain; Morissette, Sandra. “Alcohol use disorder in active duty service members: Incidence rates over a 19-year period.” Substance Abuse, 2022. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

Schuler, Megan; Wong, Eunice; Ramchand, Rajeev. “Military Service Branch Differences in Alcohol Use, Tobacco Use, Prescription Drug Misuse, and Mental Health Conditions.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, June 2022. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Eligibility for VA disability benefits.” April 5, 2023. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

Stecker, Tracy; Shiner, Brian; Watts, Bradley; Jones, Meissa; Conner, Kenneth. “Treatment-Seeking Barriers for Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Conflicts Who Screen Positive for PTSD.” Psychiatric Services, March 2013. Accessed June 15, 2023. 

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