Every year, Veterans Day unites communities and inspires patriotism; it reminds all of us to give respect to those who have served or are still serving. This year’s Veterans Day marks a particularly bittersweet milestone—President Obama’s recent announcement of the impending withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. It’s easy to accept the positive implications of this announcement, but we need to remember that coming home is often the greatest battle. Many veterans turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism when returning home, and unfortunately, most of them are unaware of how or where to get help.
I joined the military when I was 17, and I was deployed to Iraq twice. Both were combat deployments, and those are always the low points of military life; there’s nothing fun or good about combat. But the high point is always there—that sense of pride that you feel and the camaraderie you achieve. You’re serving alongside your brothers and sisters. When we returned home, however, I really started to notice the difference; drugs, mainly alcohol, were the first things everybody turned to for comfort. I know now that 1 in 4 veterans meet the criteria for an alcohol abuse disorder.
This isn’t surprising; alcohol is a big part of the military culture, so if you don’t have the tools to deal with addiction when you come home, you’re pretty much screwed. I struggled a great deal with alcohol abuse after my deployment, but luckily I knew where I could get free treatment through the Veterans Administration, and was able to learn the tools I needed to sustain recovery. This is how I ended up in my line of work; when I came home and witnessed my friends’ struggles and experienced my own, I realized I wanted to help my fellow veterans—those who help all of us every day. My attitude is, “I can help them, so I will.”
Military-specific treatment services, like those offered at the VA and here at Phoenix House, are so important because they create a sense of community while providing a safe and supportive environment. There are a lot of things happening in a soldier’s mind that he or she may not even be aware of. For example, I was having difficulty with my memory and I didn’t know why; I was eventually diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury—apparently too many bombs had exploded near my head. That’s the case with a lot of vets; from physical injuries to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the aftereffects of combat often have a negative effect on their work, their families, their lives—and if they don’t understand what’s wrong, how can they deal with it in a healthy way?
The biggest problem we face is the fact that so few veterans know about the resources that are available to them. We need to raise awareness among families and communities; we need to foster discussions about substance abuse and addiction, which are unfortunate but widespread realities among military personnel. We need to be prepared—not just to welcome our troops home, but to help many of them fight addiction and live successful lives in recovery.
Veteran Case Manager