college and recovery

A recipe of success for veterans

Veterans of military service in the United States encounter many difficulties when resuming civilian life. Substance use disorder (SUD) and addiction are some of those difficulties. The rates of mental health problems and substance abuse among veterans have been in the spotlight over the past few years, and many efforts have been made to help veterans overcome addiction.

Post-secondary education may be one way that veterans can prevent or recover from substance abuse. This article will discuss the issues surrounding addiction in veterans and how higher learning may help veterans to overcome substance use disorders and adopt sober living.   

Addiction Rates Among Veterans

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), 7% of veterans had problems with drug use in 2019. This percentage is slightly higher than 5.3% of the general population of U.S. adults over age 18. Of those veterans experiencing drug use issues, 80% struggled with alcohol abuse and 7% used both alcohol and illegal drugs. Besides alcohol, veterans commonly abuse marijuana and psychotherapeutic drugs. 

In addition, 10% of veterans ages 18 to 25 misused prescription pain relievers, compared to 5.5% of the general U.S. population of the same age. Prescription pain reliever misuse is more common in veterans than the use of illegal street drugs. For example, 505,000 veterans misused prescription pain killers while only 59,000 used heroin in 2019.1

Alcohol tends to pose problems for veterans, and alcohol abuse is the most common form of substance use disorder experienced by veterans. A 2017 study found that the most common forms of substance use disorder in both male and female veterans were heavy episodic drinking, more commonly called binge drinking, alongside cigarette smoking. Alcohol and drug use problems tend to be more prevalent in male veterans (10.5% alcohol abuse, 4.8% drug abuse) than female veterans (4.8% alcohol abuse, 2.4% drug abuse). 2

Further Insight into Veterans and Addiction

Why do Veterans Experience Addiction?

Veterans may fall into substance use disorders for a variety of reasons, but one of the most significant reasons is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The trauma of combat and the nature of military duties have left psychological scars on many soldiers. It is estimated that about 30% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD at some point in their lives. Gulf War Veterans experience PTSD at a rate of 12%, while Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Veterans show rates of PTSD between 11 and 20%. 3 The US Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 20% of veterans who have PTSD also have a substance use disorder. 4

Other Reasons Why Veterans Struggle with SUD

Other reasons veterans may experience addiction include:

Chronic Pain

Physical pain from combat wounds or the physical demands of military duties can lead to the use of prescription pain killers for soldiers. If these medications are addictive, their use can continue once a soldier has become a veteran. During the 2000s, the use of prescription pain medications became widespread among military personnel and veterans. Between 2001 and 2009, military physicians quadrupled the number of prescriptions they wrote for narcotic pain medications and the percentage of veterans receiving opioid pain medications increased from 17% to 24%. 5

Traumatic Brain Injury

Modern warfare and the explosive weapons used in war have increased the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) that soldiers receive. It is estimated that 22% of all combat-related injuries received during the Iraq and Afghanistan operations involved TBI, compared to just 12% of Vietnam-related injuries. 6 Research is ongoing regarding the relationship between TBI and substance use disorder, but a 2013 study found that airmen with mild TBI were at significantly increased risk of developing alcohol dependence, nicotine dependence, and non-dependent use of alcohol and drugs as compared to airmen with more severe TBI. 7

Sleep Disorders

A symptom of PTSD in veterans may be insomnia or difficulty sleeping. Benzodiazepine medications may be used to treat insomnia since they have a tranquilizing effect. However, because benzodiazepines are addictive, their use may lead to prescription drug addiction.

Further Insight into Veterans and Addiction

Post-Secondary Education and Veterans Benefits

Veterans may avoid SUD by pursuing higher learning after their military service. One reason many people enter military service is to earn benefits, including money for college. Veterans may take advantage of programs to pay for college, including the most widely known program, the Veterans Educational Assistance Act, or GI Bill. This program provides veterans with money for tuition, books, and housing plus other types of VA benefits for veterans who attend community college, technical college, apprenticeships, and other higher educations. In addition to the GI Bill, VA education programs that aid veterans who want to pursue higher education include:

Yellow Ribbon Program

This program allows veterans to attend private colleges at a reduced tuition rate that is negotiated between the college and the federal government.

Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP)

A savings program for veterans who served between January 1, 1977, and June 30, 1985, that offers 2:1 matching from the government, based on the amount of money the veteran deposits in the account.

State-Based Veterans Programs

I n addition to the GI Bill, many states offer additional tuition assistance and/or benefits for veterans who participate in higher education. Information on these resources may be found through the department of veterans’ affairs in each state.

VA Programs in Science and Technology

Veterans who are pursuing degrees in science and technology-related fields may also benefit from the following VA education programs:

Edith Nourse Rogers Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) Scholarship

This program allows veterans who are working on degrees in high-demand science and technology fields to extend their GI Bill benefits by up to 9 months.

Veterans Employment through Technology Education Courses

This program provides tuition and money for housing to veterans seeking degrees in computer science or information technology.

How Veterans Transfer into Higher Education

Economic Impact of Higher Education on Veterans

Because of the programs listed above, veterans have a distinct advantage when engaged in higher learning. VA education allows veterans to obtain degrees that are fully or partially paid for. As a result, veterans who utilize these programs have less debt when they graduate than those who don’t. 

A study that examined borrowing for post-secondary education among veterans during 2015-2016 found that 57% of veterans who utilized the GI Bill and other VA education benefits borrowed money to finish their degrees, compared to 73% of those who did not use benefits. In addition, the number of money veterans who utilized VA education benefits borrowed throughout their enrollment was less than four times the annual borrowing rate. 8
Veterans who obtain degrees also enjoy higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than veterans who do not pursue higher learning. The same study cited above found that veterans who earned bachelor’s degrees earned around $15,000 more per year than veterans with only a high school diploma. The differences were more significant for veterans who earned masters or doctoral degrees.8
In addition, veterans who earned bachelor’s degrees earned about $5000 more per year than non-veterans who earned bachelor’s degrees. Veterans with college degrees also had a slightly lower unemployment rate than veterans who did not have degrees, 2.6% vs. 3.9% for veterans with a high school diploma and 7.0% for veterans with less than a high school education. 8

Employment and Addiction Rates

The above discussion relates to one very important point: a person’s employment status directly affects his or her risk for developing a substance use disorder. A long-term study that examined the relationship between job status and the use of illegal drugs found that people who were employed full time were less likely to report illegal drug use than unemployed people. This study on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2005 to 2011 found that 8% of people employed full time reported illegal drug use in the past month, compared to 18% of people who were unemployed. 9

Additional studies found that levels of education and economic status correlated with substance abuse. These studies discovered that almost half of people in treatment for substance abuse never graduated from high school, 20% of welfare recipients admitted to using illegal drugs, and a person making less than $20,000 per year had a 1/3 lower chance of recovering from cocaine abuse than a person earning more than $70,000 per year10. For veterans, the choice to attend college and earn a degree that will lead to a full-time job will lower the chances of developing a substance use disorder.   

How Do Colleges Help Veteran Students Stay Sober?

Even though pursuing post-secondary education lowers a veteran’s risk of developing an addiction, the risk is still there, and the pressures of college life can lead to substance abuse. Many colleges offer assistance to students who develop substance use disorders, but some colleges pay special attention to this particular problem within the student body. One way a college or university can do this is by providing a collegiate recovery program, or CRP.  

What is a CRP?

Collegiate recovery programs are designed to provide a supportive environment to students recovering from substance use disorders. CRPs merge educational opportunities with the support needed for students to recover from addiction and maintain a sober lifestyle. Many colleges that provide CRPs belong to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE). This organization provides resources to colleges and universities that already run or who want to start collegiate recovery programs. Currently, 142 campuses across the United States belong to this organization. The ultimate goal of a collegiate recovery program is to allow students to begin or continue their education programs while participating in treatment and recovery. Some of the services that CRPs offer include11:
  • On-campus support groups and 12 step meetings
  • Substance-free housing
  • Substance-free social events
  • Full-time staff dedicated to the CRP
  • On-campus physical facilities, such as a drop-in center
  • Professional counseling from addiction treatment specialists
  • Behavioral contracts
  • Peer governance by CRP members
Ultimately CRPs improve student health by giving them a structured, supportive path toward sober living. Students who participate in CRPs have been found to have improved grade point averages, higher graduation rates, and lower relapse levels than students who have substance use disorders and do not participate in CRPs11. This factor goes for students who are veterans as well as non-veterans.

How Can Veterans Pay for Addiction Treatment?

Veterans with substance use disorders who attend college still need to pay for treatment for their addictions. This might be a challenge for some, considering that veterans typically receive treatment in VA facilities and these facilities might not be located near their college campuses. Fortunately, veterans with substance use disorders have options regarding where they receive treatment and how their VA benefits pay for that treatment.   

Programs to Pay for Veterans’ Treatment

The increased attention that substance use disorders and mental health issues have received in recent years has led to an increase in the amount of research and programming that the VA provides in this area. Besides receiving treatment at a VA health care facility, programs that veterans can use to help pay for substance abuse treatment include:


Tricare is the health insurance program for uniformed service members and their families. It also covers retirees from the military.

Veteran’s Choice

The Veteran’s Access, Choice, and Accountability act of 2014 made it possible for veterans to receive health care services at non-VA facilities. Federal funding for this program ended in 2018. Interim funding has been approved until the program can be replaced by the newer MISSION Act program.

Community Care

When the VA is unable to provide the health care that veterans in a certain area need, the Community Care program allows these veterans to receive care through community providers. Unlike the Veteran’s Choice program, eligibility for Community Care is based on specific eligibility, need, and availability requirements.


Passed in 2018, the VA MISSION Act expands access to health care for veterans. By addressing gaps in service across all areas of VA health care provision, this act allows veterans to receive services at both VA and non-VA health care facilities. The act also closes gaps in service related to walk-in care and prescription drugs. The MISSION Act will eventually replace both the Veteran’s Choice program and Community Care.


Through post-secondary education, veterans can obtain degrees and participate in treatment programs at the same time. This degree allows them to earn higher incomes and improve their overall quality of life while reducing their chances of relapsing. Collegiate recovery programs, VA education benefits like the GI Bill, and VA health care programs all play a role in helping veterans get the help they need with addiction while attending school. If you know a veteran struggling with addiction, encourage them to get help as soon as possible, and to consider higher learning as one of their options while they pursue sober living.  


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