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A Prescription for Prescription Medication Abuse in the Military


In a little over a decade, the number of prescription medications prescribed for service members—including painkillers, tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, stimulants, and barbiturates—has risen from fewer than one million to nearly five million. There has been an ever-prevalent issue of alcohol abuse in the military, but prescription drug abuse has become more prominent since the Afghanistan War began in 2001. Many soldiers who have come back from the war with injuries or PTSD easily get handed a prescription or two. In 2008, one in four soldiers admitted to abusing prescription drugs in a one-year time period. The military needs to start taking action or the problem will only increase with time.

The effects that prescription drugs can have on people can be especially harmful to men and women in the service when they’re in combat. Some prescription drugs can help, but many will cause drowsiness and impair judgment. The side effects can be safe when they happen at home but can put active-duty men and women in a great deal of danger.

In a Men’s Health article, one retired Marine Corporal said that he and a friend were taking painkillers for injuries after they returned from a tour in Iraq, telling the magazine, “We’d find pills on the floor and just take them.” They are so easy to get a hold of and so easy to get hooked on. They are also costing the military quite a bit of money. Over the past decade, the military has spent $1.6 billion on painkillers such as Oxycontin and Hydrocodone, $2.7 billion on anti-depressants, and over $507 million on sleep medications such as Ambien.

It’s not just an issue for active duty, either. Among all veterans receiving VA services nationally in a single year, 1,013 had died of accidental drug overdoses. When compared to civilian rates, overdoses are a greater threat to veterans than suicides, which are more widely publicized.

It has been a long-standing problem that the military doesn’t have many options for active duty personnel with substance abuse issues – which is surprising since some people have gone as far as stating that the drinking and drug use in the military represents a “public health crisis.”

Some of the hurdles that limit the access to treatment include the limited availability of rehabilitation services, holes in TRICARE (service member insurance) coverage, stigma associated with alcohol and drug abuse, fear of negative consequences, and lack of confidential services. TRICARE also does not cover the use of medications that can help reduce the dependency on opioid drugs. It would be beneficial for military doctors to receive better training in recognizing substance abuse and referring patients to specialists, like pain management experts, instead of relying so much on writing prescriptions.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the prescription drug abuse in the military and what can be done to help. A lot of it is going to begin with military leaders encouraging the men and women in their troops to get the help they need and deserve without fear of punishment or alienation. It’s time we do right by our service members and stand by them when they need a helping hand since they have done it for so many others.

If the military can change some of how they deal out medications and monitor it properly—along with TRICARE covering a wider range of treatment facilities—and if they can lose some of the negative stigma attached with the abuse, it will make a world of a difference.



  1. Cronin, Delaney. “Military’s Upgrade of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Programs.” Advanced Health and Education. na. Web. 21 February 2013.
  2. Peterson, Melody. “The War… on Drugs.” Men’s Health. 01 April 2009. Web. 21 February 2013.
  3. Rinckey, Greg T. “Army Prohibits Use of Prescription Drugs 6 Months After Exp. Date.” Tully Rinckey PLLC Attorneys and Counselors at Law. na. Web. 21 February 2013.
  4. Estavillo, Sonyo. “The Deadly Rise of Prescription Drug Abuse in the Military.” 14 February 2013. Web. 21 February 2013.


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Filed under: Addiction, Alcohol and Drugs, Substance Abuse · Tags: Addiction, barbiturates, Drug Abuse, drug abuse in the military, military, muscle relaxants, painkillers, Prescription Drug Abuse, prescription drugs, Stimulants, tranquilizers, TRICARE is operated by Recovery Brands LLC, a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers, Inc.
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