Military Veterans Need More Accessible Addiction Treatment

By Britni de la Cretaz 12/07/17

According to the wife of a combat veteran, Walter Reed Medical Center "handed out the pain pills like Chiclets."

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As more attention is paid to the rising rates of prescription painkiller addiction, there is one population that is often left out of the conversation. Military veterans are also at risk for prescription opioid addiction, yet their struggles can be overlooked and resources for them are not readily available. And while progress is being made, there is still much work to be done.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), misuse of prescription drugs is higher among members of the military than among civilians, and those rates are on the rise. NIDA reports that in 2008, 11% of service members reported misusing prescription drugs, which was up from just 2% in 2002 and 4% in 2005.

Furthermore, opioid prescriptions written by military doctors quadrupled between 2001 and 2009, with many of these being intended to treat combat injuries.

Rates of veterans being treated for opioid disorder are significant, too. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 68,000 vets are being treated for addiction to opioids by the VA, and about 1 in 10 soldiers returning from combat struggles with substance misuse. For some vets, their addiction to pain medication begins with the military itself.

In a recent story in The Buffalo Times, Rosemarie Peterson recounted the story of her husband, Donald Peterson, a combat veteran and member of the Army Reserves. While deployed, he experienced traumatic brain injury and herniated disks, and received prescriptions for opioids to treat his pain.

Donald Peterson died from medical complications which Rosemarie believes were related to his opioid addiction, which left him homeless and unable to care for himself. “When Don was at Walter Reed Medical Center, he told me they handed out the pain pills like Chiclets. He said he had become dependent on them,” Rosemarie told The Buffalo Times.

The VA says it is taking steps to address the concerns of vets who need treatment for addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced in June that it was working with the Department of Defense and the VA “to enhance informed prescribing practices and prevent misuse that can result in overdose or even death.”

The VA told The Buffalo Times that between 2012 and 2017, there had been a 39% decrease in the number of patients being prescribed opioids.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.