Alcohol Abuse in Military Veterans: Stats, Causes & Effects

Last Updated: February 1, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Alcoholism in military veterans is a common problem because the stress of combat can take a toll on a veteran’s mental health. Alcohol can become a coping mechanism for trauma and distress, but over time, this method of coping can lead to consequences. Some veterans who use alcohol to cope may develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD) — the clinical term for an alcohol addiction. With proper treatment, recovery and healthy coping are both possible. 

Alcohol Abuse and Military Culture

Unfortunately, alcohol misuse in the military can be a part of the culture. Researchers have noted that drinking is a common part of military culture, with active duty members drinking together for bonding, recreation and stress relief. Binge drinking may even be normalized in military culture, so service members who struggle with alcohol misuse may not realize that they have developed a problem.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Abuse in Veterans

Military culture and social norms can contribute to binge drinking among veterans, but these are not the only risk factors for alcohol misuse in veterans.

PTSD

PTSD and alcohol misuse in veterans are strongly intertwined. Veterans with PTSD are more likely than those without PTSD to drink to cope with painful emotions. In addition, experiencing a larger number of traumatic events during one’s lifetime is associated with a higher risk of alcohol use disorder in veterans, suggesting that trauma is related to alcohol misuse in this population. Finally, research with veterans has shown that 55–68% of veterans with PTSD have an AUD, which is generally higher than the rate of AUD reported in veterans without PTSD. 

Depression

Depression is another mental health disorder that increases the risk of alcohol misuse in veterans. Research has determined that veterans may be motivated to drink to alleviate depression, especially if they have PTSD. Over time, drinking to cope can lead to an alcohol addiction. 

Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

Much of the research on MST has occurred with female veterans, but this doesn’t mean that men are never affected by this risk factor. One study that explored the experiences of female veterans found that those who reported alcohol consumption were more likely to have a history of MST when compared to those who didn’t drink. The study also revealed that women with a history of MST may tend to use alcohol as a coping mechanism for depression or as a way to avoid uncomfortable emotions. 

Impact of Alcohol Addiction on Veterans 

The temporary relief that comes from alcohol misuse can come with negative consequences. Beyond worsening mental health for veterans, alcohol addiction can increase the risk of several problems. 

Homelessness

Alcohol addiction can lead to homelessness among veterans who cannot maintain a job or meet their financial obligations as a result of alcohol abuse. Research on veterans indicated that abusing alcohol increases the risk of experiencing six or more months of homelessness. Related behaviors like driving under the influence also increase the risk of homelessness. 

Self-Harm and Suicide 

Veterans addicted to alcohol are also at increased risk of self-harm and suicide. In fact, research indicates that veterans who experience an AUD are slightly over four times as likely to make a suicide attempt at some point during their lives when compared to those who do not live with an alcohol addiction. 

Strained Relationships

Continuing to drink despite relationship problems arising from alcohol misuse is one of the signs of an alcohol use disorder. Veterans who become addicted to alcohol are likely to experience relationship conflict as a result of the problems that come from alcohol misuse. Relationships with one’s spouse and children are likely to be negatively affected, and friendships may even deteriorate if a veteran’s behavior becomes erratic and inappropriate due to alcohol abuse. 

Military Veteran Alcoholism Statistics 

Military veteran statistics indicate that alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorders are common in this population.

  • A nationally representative survey of over 3,000 veterans found that 42.2% had an AUD at some point, and 14.8% showed symptoms of an AUD within the year prior to the survey administration.
  • The same study found that younger male veterans were at a higher risk of AUD when compared to other groups. 
  • Results of another study showed that compared to non-deployed veterans, Gulf War veterans were 33% more likely to have an AUD, and Iraq/Afghanistan veterans were 36% more likely to have an AUD. 

Help for Military Veterans Struggling With Alcoholism

If you’re a military veteran seeking alcohol addiction treatment, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. We are a part of the VA Community Care Network, and we offer group therapy specifically for trauma. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to learn more or to get started with treatment. 

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

FAQs on Alcohol Addiction Amongst Military Personnel & Veterans

Does the VA consider alcoholism a disability? 

Veterans who are injured or ill due to their military service or experiencing worsening health conditions while 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 like PTSD, depression and anxiety may qualify a veteran to receive disability benefits. 

If you experience an alcohol use disorder with PTSD from your service, you may be eligible for 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 veterans?

Military culture, as well as mental health conditions like PTSD and depression, are commonly linked to alcohol misuse in veterans. Military service members may use alcohol to relieve stress or cope with mental health problems, but over time, an addiction can develop. 

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

Signs of alcohol addiction include: 

  • Drinking large quantities of alcohol
  • Spending a significant amount of time drinking or recovering from being drunk
  • Having difficulty fulfilling duties at work
  • Withdrawing from usual hobbies and activities
  • Experiencing strong alcohol cravings
  • Being unable to cut back on alcohol use
  • Showing withdrawal symptoms like tremor or headache when not drinking 

How does alcoholism impact veterans?

Alcohol misuse has been linked to numerous problems for veterans, including homelessness, self-harm and relationship problems. Alcohol misuse is also associated with poor physical and mental health in veterans. 

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

Treatment is beneficial for veterans who live 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 or getting in trouble and lacking time to seek care. 

Sources

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2023. Accessed June 14, 2023.

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 14, 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 14, 2023.

Fuehrlein, Brian, et al. “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 14, 2023.

Creech, Suzannah; Borsari, Brian. “Alcohol use, military sexual trauma, expectancies, and coping skills in women veterans presenting to primary care.” Addictive Behaviors, February 2014. Accessed June 14, 2023.

Harris, Taylor; Kintzle, Sara; Wenzel, Suzanne; & Castro, Andrew. “Expanding the Understanding of Risk Behavior Associated With Homelessness Among Veterans.” Military Medicine, September 2017. Accessed June 14, 2023.

Kelsall, Helen Louise, et al. “Alcohol Use and Substance Use Disorders in Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq War Veterans Compared With Nondeployed Military Personnel.” Epidemiologic Reviews, 2015. Accessed June 14, 2023.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Eligibility for VA disability benefits.” April 5, 2023. Accessed June 14, 2023.

Boden, Matthew & Hoggatt, Katherine. “Substance Use Disorders Among Veterans in a Nationally Representative Sample: Prevalence and Associated Functioning and Treatment Utilization.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2018. Accessed June 14, 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 14, 2023.

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