There is a natural tendency for people to criticize the government, and the Veterans Administration is no exception, with news stories and criticism that the agency doesn’t do enough to help veterans with substance abuse problems.
But 31 years ago, I was recently out of the Army and hopelessly addicted to alcohol and cocaine. I sought treatment at the VA, and more than 3 decades later I’m still clean.
Considering that the substance abuse treatment offerings of today’s Veterans Administration are far more advanced and expanded when compared to 30 years ago, it’s clear that the VA does indeed take care of its own when addiction strikes.
If you’re a veteran and you’re struggling with the disease of addiction or alcoholism, you can reach out for help right now to the VA and obtain access to a wealth of powerful treatment options.
In fact, in addition to its current offerings, the VA is also funding and managing research to better understand addiction and develop more effective treatment protocols.1
VA’s Offerings for Veterans Addiction & Alcoholism
Addiction and Alcoholism Screenings
Screenings for substance abuse problems offered by the VA are designed to help you and your healthcare provider understand the duration and severity of any drug or alcohol abuse issues, as well as other important information such as the possibility of co-occurring conditions, mental health disorders, and physical issues that may be contributing to substance abuse. These screenings are easy to obtain. Simply contact your OEF/OIF coordinator at the VA medical center nearest you.
VA Medical Detox
Once you have become addicted, you should never suddenly stop using drugs. Doing so could result in severe, life-threatening complications, depending on a number of critical variables. For this reason, the Veterans Administration offers medical detox to help veterans safely detox and withdraw from dangerous substances like heroin, benzodiazepine and alcohol.
Medical detox in a VA center works by treating symptoms and providing therapies and access to additional, longer-term treatment once clinical withdrawal is complete.
In general, medical detox lasts less than two weeks but can be as short as a few days. Veterans who need to detox in a professional medical setting are advised to contact their existing VA healthcare provider.
VA Outpatient Treatment
Because the VA understands that in many cases addicts cannot dedicate themselves to a live-in type of long-term treatment, the agency offers effective outpatient treatment at nearly all of its medical centers. During intensive outpatient treatment, veterans attend various therapies in the evening and off-hours so that they can continue to work and/or go to school while getting treatment.
Residential Inpatient Treatment
Residential inpatient treatment is offered at VA medical centers and generally consists of a 4-week program designed to intensively treat addicts and alcoholics and prepare them to relearn how to live and function productively while in recovery.
During inpatient treatment, veterans will be provided with medications when appropriate, regular access to clinicians and therapists, as well as taking part in group therapy and family therapy sessions.
Inpatient treatment is the most intensive type of treatment available and is widely considered to be the most successful mode of treatment. If you or a veteran you care about needs either inpatient or outpatient treatment, there are a number of ways to begin the process:
- Contact the OEF/OIF coordinator.
- Call your local VA medical center.
- Call 1-800-827-1000 for the VA’s general information hotline.
If you’re a returning service member, you may want to consider a VA Vet Center, which are generally mobile locations where veterans can go to get assistance outside of traditional VA medical centers.
In many cases, veterans can be seen same-day and appointments are provided after hours. In most cases, the staff and counselors at a VA Vet Center are also veterans and therefore can offer a level of understanding that other therapists or counselors cannot.
Drug Substitution Therapies/Opioid Replacement Therapy
Some veterans who are addicted to drugs or alcohol will be surprised to learn that the VA offers drug substitution therapies, most notably opioid replacement therapy or ORT. These types of therapies provide addicts with medication to help gradually wean them off the substances they are addicted to.
Alcoholics may be provided with benzodiazepines to help relieve the discomfort and anxiety of withdrawal, while those with opioid use disorder are generally provided with Methadone, Suboxone, or Naltrexone.
In some cases, these therapies can continue for an extended period of time, but veterans should expect to actively make efforts to cease using treatment drugs as soon as possible, lest they merely substitute one addiction for another.
However, veterans should be cautioned that most sensitive types of work and even school or education may be difficult or impossible while involved in this type of therapy considering the potency of the treatment drugs involved.
Veterans who opt for this treatment should be prepared to dedicate their full attention to their recovery efforts.
Relapse Prevention and Support
The Veterans Administration offers a wide range of relapse prevention and treatment support services. This includes the hosting of 12-step and other group therapy programs, liaison and collaboration with outside treatment agencies and programs, and programs to connect veterans and their families to the assistance they need.
Additionally, the VA offers veterans a toll-free crisis line where they can get help if they have relapsed, are having a family emergency, or any other type of crisis, including:
- 1-800-273-8255 for calls.
- Messaging 838255 for chat via text message.
- Chatting online confidentially.
There’s More than Help for Substance Abuse
It wouldn’t make sense to just treat addicts and send them on their way—many people turn to drugs or alcohol as a result of serious underlying conditions or co-occurring disorders.
For instance, people who are addicted to drugs often suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression and other debilitating conditions. The VA offers help for all of these and other conditions and can provide assistance concurrently with treatment for addiction or alcoholism.
Help for co-occurring conditions or for a crisis situation can be obtained via the VA Crisis line at 1-800-273-8255, or you can use the MentalHealth.VA.gov website for information about and treatment for specific conditions, most notably the following pages:
Finally, the VA also offers support services for homeless veterans. This is important considering that homelessness and substance abuse/alcoholism are often connected.2 (Substance Abuse and Homelessness, National Coalition for the Homeless July 2009) Veterans who have become homeless for any reason can reach out to the VA for substantial resources and assistance using the following Department of Veterans Affairs.
Without providing assistance for all of these issues that are connected to drug and alcohol abuse, the help for addiction that the VA offered would be incomplete and therefore likely ineffective.
By offering assistance for nearly all problems related to substance abuse and addiction, the VA provides a comprehensive, holistic solution for veterans that has little if any comparison in the civilian sector.
However, it’s up to veterans and their families to reach out for help, and it may require some work on their part. I personally know this to be true: The first day I went to the VA for substance abuse treatment more than 30 years ago I was turned away, as there were no beds available for me at that facility.
So I came back the next day and asked again. And the next day, and the next. On the 5th day, a bed opened up and I was accepted for treatment, and the rest is history.
I used the opportunity to get clean and stay clean. In the following years I founded a drug rehab center that is still growing today and has helped thousands of addicts—including many veterans—overcome the disease of addiction and take back control of their lives.
They all had to work hard at it, and so will you. But if you’re a veteran, you’ve got the power and support of the VA behind you. Make no mistake—if you put in the effort and use the programs that are available to you as a veteran, you cannot fail.
I am living proof of this, so when I hear people criticize the VA for not doing enough for veterans with addictions, I’m compelled to help set the record straight. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t think even more can be done.
Recovery First has more information about substance abuse among veterans, as well as treatment options for those looking for options outside of the VA. You can also call their Admissions Navigators at 954-526-5776 for more information about treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Substance use and military life: general risk of substance use disorders.
- National Coalition for the Homeless. (2009). Substance abuse and homelessness.
James F. Davis, CAS, is a board-certified Interventionist, drug rehab founder and United States Army veteran. Mr. Davis’ son Larry is currently serving in the Army in Iraq. Davis is also the founder of an organization dedicated to creating awareness about the condition known as Post Acute Withdrawal—widely considered the leading cause of relapse in addicts and alcoholics.