The current opioid epidemic that ravages its way into the headlines is threatening millions of lives… and our military is on the front lines. Understanding the unique challenges facing our men and women in uniform is the key to helping stop this tragic trend before it does any more harm to our soldiers and veterans.
The Wars Abroad
Since the inception of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at the beginning of this century, almost 7,000 troops have perished. Thousands more have suffered injuries from enemy fire, desert fatigue, and improvised explosive devices (IED’s). Veterans’ Affairs does their best to care for our wounded warriors, but pain is an all too common occurrence in their daily lives, and medication is sometimes required.
Hydrocodone is often the go-to prescription for military injuries, but the alarming frequency with which it is now being dispensed is shocking. Back in 2001, only about 1,100 patients received hydrocodone from the VA. Fast forward to 2012, when that number escalated to over 47,000. That’s a 4,000% increase in just over a decade.
Nobody questions the use of painkillers when they are employed to actually remedy pain, but what about the societal ramifications? The overwhelming preponderance of opioid prescription practices has bled into recreational use with frightening velocity. One recent study reports that approximately two-thirds of those surveyed have experimented with pain medications for non-medicinal purposes.
That which started as the solution has quickly become the problem.
The War at Home
Even after a soldier leaves the combat zone, the firefight still burns within him or her. You can’t simply “shake off” the memories of war and move on with a suburban reality; it lingers in your consciousness. In addition to the battleground scars that traverse some soldiers’ flesh, the telltale signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can mar the soul.
PTSD is often triggered by a life-altering event. This inciting moment can be the violence of war, domestic abuse, rape, or childhood trauma. Military personnel experience the phenomenon at a staggeringly higher rate than the civilian population. For example, an estimated 11-20% of those deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom reported episodes of PTSD. Those statistics double when you look at the percentage of Vietnam Vets who have experienced PTSD in their lifetime: approximately 30%.
There are four main groups of symptoms that factor into a PTSD diagnosis:
- RE-EXPERIENCING SYMPTOMS: These are episodes in which you relive the trauma that kick-started your PTSD in the first place. They may manifest themselves as bad dreams, dark thoughts, or flashbacks that trigger vivid hallucinations and excessive sweating, heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
- AVOIDANCE SYMPTOMS: Someone afflicted with PTSD may want to steer clear of anything that remotely reminds him or her of the situation that instigated the condition. For example, staying away from the California desert because it brings to mind the landscape of Iraq. Some soldiers may even avoid certain conversations or emotional situations for fear of triggering a reminiscent scenario.
- REACTIVITY AND AROUSAL SYMPTOMS: Being excessively jumpy is a sign that you’re still in the throes of PTSD. When a loud noise can incite your flashbacks or keep you from sleeping, these are sure signs that you need to consult a therapist to discuss your condition.
- MOOD AND COGNITION SYMPTOMS: In some advanced stages of PTSD, the person suffering may black out certain memories altogether. This is a defense mechanism, but it could lead to additional memory problems. In these instances, the brain is working overtime to shield itself from anything remotely similar to the traumatic event in question. Your PTSD may also affect your mood to such a degree that you no longer have the capacity to feel joy or see the hope in your future.
The effects of PTSD are profoundly debilitating. Those affected often resort to a “fight or flight” defense pose, even when they aren’t faced with imminent danger. They often have trouble integrating into “normal” society because “normal” society doesn’t reflect the hell through which they have lived. This can result in difficulties finding and keeping a job, which can sometimes snowball into financial loss, alienation, and even homelessness.
A Case in Point: The Enduring Bravery of Donald Elverd
One of the greatest misconceptions related to substance use is that a person who succumbs to addiction isn’t “strong enough” to fend off the temptation of drugs and/or alcohol. That argument gets blown to hell when you consider the case of Sergeant Donald Elverd. He fought for the 25th Infantry Division, he earned three Purple Hearts, and he suffered massive bodily harm from the bullets and shrapnel that riddled his chest in Vietnam.
“Strong enough” for you?
Sgt. Elverd spent two years in military hospitals trying to mend his battle wounds, but his pain prescriptions would haunt him far longer than the physical scars. He desperately needed the opioids at the time, but he had no exit strategy to wean himself from the meds. His road to recovery was long and arduous, but now Donald Elverd works to help other veterans who struggle with the same issues that he has confronted… and continues to conquer.
Enlist in Yourself
Cadets who join the military often do so to make the world a better place. They put their lives on the line and display unparalleled honor, valor, and courage along the way. Now it’s time to apply those virtues to the recovery process. Contact one of our care professionals now and fight back against the forces of addiction.