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The Long Road Home: Veterans, Addiction, and Post-Traumatic Stress

Veteran Reunited | Veterans, Addiction, and Post-Traumatic Stress | Turning Point of Tampa

When you think of a veteran, what do you envision? Many might recall the famous photograph of a recently returned sailor planting a kiss on a swooning nurse. Others might picture Chris Kyle, the famous American sniper portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the Oscar-winning biopic. But for others, the term might call to mind more troubling images, of homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. While some veterans can reintegrate into society with relative ease, others have found the return home from combat to be a battle of its own. Veterans in the United States today face startlingly high rates of addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses. To understand why, it would serve us well to look at the past, present, and future of this group of people who have put their lives on the line to protect American freedoms.

The Development of the Veteran Identity and the VA

After World War I, a large cohort of returning troops banded together to secure political clout. These veterans demanded they be compensated for their efforts on behalf of the country with health care, life insurance, and job training. The result was the formation of the Veterans’ Administration, which combined existing services under the umbrella of a single federal agency. By the time World War II broke out (demanding the mobilization of 16 million troops), veterans had begun to understand themselves as a unique group, whose service to the country set them apart, and whose needs were distinct from those of the general population.

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The End of the Draft and the Expansion of the Veteran Class

Conscription ended in 1973 and has not been resumed. The transition to a volunteer army led to a major demographic shift, as people other than white males began to enter the military and take on leadership roles. Today, racial minorities are mostly equitably distributed in the military. Women have entered the service in larger numbers and were officially allowed to enter combat beginning in 2013. The result is that veterans are now a very diverse group that includes over 2 million women, which is close to 10% of the total number of US veterans.

Recognizing a Problem: Shell Shock and PTSD

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The condition we now recognize as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not new. In fact, there are references to soldiers who struggled with flashbacks, nightmares, depression and inattention that date back over 3,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia. These ailments are symptoms of what we now refer to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In World War I, soldiers who left the battlefield with symptoms like these were diagnosed with “shell-shock,” a catch-all term to cover the many manifestations of psychological trauma that combat medics observed. The term was later revised to “post-Vietnam syndrome,” and the current terminology emerged in 1980. Only then were efforts made to develop treatments for the lasting psychological effects of war. Today, techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and cognitive processing therapy show promise in alleviating the pain of sufferers of PTSD. One organization for veterans estimates that 1 in 3 service members suffers with PTSD. The Veterans Administration provides PTSD treatment at its Medical Centers, including specialized care for women veterans; links to resources can be found here.

The Battle Within: Addiction Among Veterans

Another major challenge faced by today’s veterans is alcohol and drug abuse. Studies have found that as much as 80% of veterans struggle with alcoholism, and the rate of prescription painkiller abuse among young veterans is double that of their age cohort in the general population. In fact, younger veterans face higher rates of unemployment, poverty and homelessness. This may be because the trauma of combat is more difficult to cope with for younger people who have had less time to develop coping mechanisms and mental resilience. The Veterans Administration offers outpatient and inpatient treatment, medically managed detox, counseling, and other services to assist veterans struggling with addiction.

Veterans Supporting Veterans: “Stand Down” Events

Female Veteran | Veterans, Addiction, and Post-Traumatic Stress | Turning Point of Tampa

Homelessness has also affected nearly 50,000 veterans of the post 9/11 wars alone. But in the last few decades, the veteran community has come together to take care of its fallen comrades. One of the most notable and promising efforts to help veterans in need is the Stand Down program, which started as a grassroots effort by veterans Robert Van Keuren and Jon Nachison to help homeless vets in San Diego. The Stand Down program provides homeless vets a place to rest from the daily battles they face on the streets and access the resources they need to escape homelessness. At Stand Down, homeless veterans get to reconnect with the camaraderie they lack in the isolation of homelessness. They are connected with food, clothing, housing assistance, mental and physical health care, and employment assistance. Stand Downs take place in dozens of different cities every year; a comprehensive list can be found here.

Leave No Man Behind: The Wounded Warrior Project

Another notable resource for veterans is the Wounded Warrior Project. This non-profit is another effort by veterans to support other veterans in need and is focused specifically on vets of the post-9/11 conflicts. The Wounded Warrior Project helps guide families through the VA benefits process, connects veterans with employment via their Warriors to Work program, and advocates for legislation that benefits veterans. The organization also provides rehabilitative retreats, free or low-cost mental health counseling, and referrals to PTSD treatment programs. Resources can be found here.

Getting Help at Turning Point of Tampa

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Turning Point of Tampa is a leading drug and alcohol addiction treatment center located in Tampa, FL. Our dedicated, compassionate staff can assist individuals who are looking to recover from many types of addiction or substance abuse. Since 1987 we have provided treatment services to those who suffer from addiction, eating disorders and dual diagnosis.

Located on one campus, our programs feature highly credentialed staff providing real structure, teaching clients how to practice 12-step principles, in a licensed, residential setting where group counseling is the keystone.

At Turning Point of Tampa, our team members share a singular focus—dedication to our clients. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction and is looking for help, please contact our team.

Listen to our Podcast “A Life of Service, with Vietnam veteran Eugene Hairston”

Podcast Episode 6

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