News/Press Releases

Hidden Suffering – Veterans and Addiction

By Jennifer Jones

Holbrook, New York, May 17, 2013 – According to statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHS), seven percent of United States war veterans turn to substance abuse and develop drug and alcohol addictions. As is clear to those returning from war with physical disabilities, the story doesn’t begin or end with front line action. The war against despair, the battle to get welfare and treatment entitlements, and the struggle to maintain a family and social life, all happen on the home front. Many of those personal battles remain hidden behind closed doors.

Veterans at Face of America 2013

Veterans at the 2013 Face of America ride had the opportunity to meet others and to regain a sense of community. Kimberly Warpinski photograph.

Mental Health

The physical scars of war, and the disabilities that veterans live with, are only part of a whole picture. The mental readjustment needed to return to civilian life is hard enough for the able bodied. For those with physical disabilities, the struggle to come to terms with their new life and its realities can exact a huge toll on the mind and spirit. Mental health is simply another aspect of health, and cannot be seen in isolation from physical health. The two often go hand in hand. Luckily, with good support groups and networks of individuals working together to make things better, many disabled veterans thrive. But what of those who struggle to readjust? It’s thought that one in four soldiers suffer from some sort of mental trauma, and new research suggests that a form of brain damage occurs when soldiers are close to loud explosions during war. What added problems do these men face, on top of their disabilities?

Substance Abuse

While it is uplifting to focus on success stories, there are those for whom there is no positive outcome, for whom the networks don’t exist, and the support doesn’t reach. Veterans living with disabilities don’t always have family to care for them. They may have joined the Army to escape from impoverished and fragmented family circumstances, which has not improved when they return from war. Young veterans of the lower ranks are known to be at highest risk of suicide upon discharge. Those young men with disabilities face real psychological struggles, as they try to adjust to thought of the rest of their lives dependent on others. Their friends may feel unable to react in an appropriate way to their disabilities, which can lead to a sense of betrayal, and social isolation. It’s no wonder that a substantial number turn to drug and alcohol in order to help them escape from the pain of every day existence.

Help With Drug Addiction

A volunteer assists a rider at the Face of America ride.

A young volunteer provides water to a rider at the 2013 Face of America ride from World T.E.A.M. Sports. Kimberly Warpinski photograph.

The hope is, of course, that those veterans with drug and alcohol dependencies regardless of whether their disabilities are physical or mental, get the help and support they need, but it is by no means certain. Treatment can be expensive and long term, and the government position on welfare help for veteran with drug addictions is far from adequate. Medical costs for rehabilitation from substance abuse is expensive, and without aid, many cannot afford to pay for it themselves. The National Institute On Drug Abuse state that “Drug or alcohol use frequently accompanies mental health problems and was involved in 30 percent of the Army’s suicide deaths from 2003 to 2009 and in more than 45 percent of non-fatal suicide attempts from 2005 to 2009.” The organization points towards some positive research on the issue however. Government agencies are investing in new approaches to treating addiction and the problem is widely recognized. The social cost of funding inevitable prison sentences, supporting families in breakdown, and fighting crime – all of which are associated with drug abuse – is enormous, and the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs invested $6 million in 2010 to agencies conducting research into intervention and treatment.

How Can You Help Addicted Veterans Today?

In the short term, it’s vital to reach out to all veterans who are suffering with mental health and/or physical disabilities, for whom addiction is a problem. They may find joining a support group, or sports group too much at first, and are unlikely to seek support, due to lack of confidence, anxiety, depression and feelings of worthlessness. But although their disabilities are hidden, they exist. Volunteering to help out with support activities at World T.E.A.M. Sports events may be a good route into re-joining the world in a healthy, positive way. Helping others is known to result in an increase in confidence, self worth and happiness. It is worth considering how established groups can reach out to help to pick up their hidden, suffering comrades and bring them back into the fold. No-one should be left behind.

Jennifer Jones is a Denver freelance writer and a mother of two. When not writing, she spends as much time as she can in the garden or walking her dogs, though most people agree, they walk her.

Riders prepare to depart.

Riders prepare to depart lunch at the 2013 Face of America ride. Richard Rhinehart photograph.