For Veterans, Addictions Shouldn’t Preclude Treatment

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Tori LyonJarrid Starks is an army veteran whose military service earned him a Bronze Star, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a possible brain injury, and a substance abuse problem—but tragically has not earned him treatment benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Why? Because he left the army with an other-than-honorable discharge due to his addiction—the very disease for which he so badly needs (and is denied) treatment.

Starks recently told the Seattle Times about his exit from the army: he tested positive for marijuana multiple times while getting treatment for his debilitating PTSD, and was quickly stripped of his treatment benefits. His case is not uncommon; the Times reports that 20,000 veterans left the U.S. military with other-than-honorable discharges during the past four years. Many of these veterans were discharged simply because, like Starks, they suffered from the disease of addiction.

In veterans, addiction rarely “acts alone”—there is a close link between PTSD and substance abuse that mustn’t be overlooked. According to TIME Magazine, about one-half to two-thirds of people with addictions also experience PTSD; roughly the same number of people with PTSD also suffer from addiction. For many veterans, their substance abuse began as a way of coping with the stress of military service.

Plus, certain treatments given to veterans for their mental and/or physical pain can increase their risk of substance abuse. Veterans who have been diagnosed with mental health issues are 2.4 times more likely to be prescribed opioid medications—a substantial risk factor for addiction. As Major Evan Seamone, told the Times: “We are creating a class of people who need help the most, and may not be able to get it.”

We must treat this group of people in need by addressing the underlying reasons for their substance abuse—but we should also streamline the process so that the military will decide more quickly whether other-than-honorably discharged veterans are eligible for health care. When Starks was dismissed from the military, he was told he would have to wait a year or more to learn whether he would be eligible for treatment. A long delay like that – especially during the painful readjustment into civilian life – can make or break a veteran’s recovery process.

Treatment is really about second chances, and it’s a sad and difficult situation when people who need help the most are ineligible. Certainly, not all other-than-honorable discharges should be eligible for benefits. If a veteran has committed a violent crime, for example, his or her benefits should indeed be examined further. But we must not abandon these men and women to the disease of addiction. They went away to serve our country, and they came back with a disease. We shouldn’t think twice about offering them treatment for that disease—just like we wouldn’t think twice about providing medical treatment if they’d lost a limb.

Tori Lyon
Military Services Advisory Board Member
Phoenix House

Blog Editor’s Note: Tori is also Executive Director of Jericho Project, a nonprofit leader in ending homelessness at its roots and serving 750 with supportive housing and comprehensive services in New York.  Phoenix House partners with Jericho to provide veterans with a safe and sober living environment after treatment. Read more about our partnership here

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  • Robin

    For my husband he sought help for the issues he was having and they were completely ignored because he referred himself into alcohol treatment and his command decided he was just an alcoholic. Six months later after getting his first appointment with a Doctor he was diagnosed with PTSD, major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Yet his command will not believe his drinking problem came from it. He drank because he was killing pain. Physical and mental. Alcohol treatment wasn’t working because going without made his symptoms worse. Now the Army has crushed him and he has given up hope. I fear for his life daily because he already attempted suicide once. He promises he won’t do that to me. I still live in fear of it.

  • alharris

    Robin – Thanks for your comment and for sharing your husband’s experience of this issue. It’s important to hear the stories of veterans who have experienced the pain of PTSD and addiction firsthand, so thank you for speaking out about what your husband has faced.

    It’s good that your husband realized he had an alcohol addiction and tried to get help. You’re right that his underlying mental and physical pain needs to be treated along with his addiction; any effective treatment plan will focus on caring for the whole person. If you’d like to talk with someone or hear more about the kind of help we offer, give us a call at 1-800-DRUG-HELP. We hope that he’s able to get the help that he’s looking for.