Talking to British War Veterans in Recovery

We admire the discipline and camaraderie of the military but the British military environment nurtures a binge drinking culture that can be a springboard for addiction.

Alcohol Abuse is Ripe Within the Military

A 2010 study by King’s College London showed that 13% of British servicemen were misusing alcohol. Most of those interviewed were veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. One of the identified causes is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Many servicemen become addicted to drugs and alcohol while still in the military. Frank, a war veteran, recalls how his alcoholism started while on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia during the 1990s: “Bosnia really kicked it off for me. From there it got gradually worse.”

Drinking is an important part of socialising in the army. “In the military there is a massive drinking culture”, says Paul, a veteran of the Northern Ireland conflict who is recovering from alcohol and drug addiction, “I used to drink to get smashed. It was ok then to go to work the next morning.”

They Need the Comfort of Their Peers

According  to therapist Jacquie Johnston Lynch, war veterans often feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences with civilians. Jacquie set up Tom Harrison House, a residential rehab clinic in Liverpool catering exclusively to people with military background.

“Veterans were telling me that as soon as you mention you’re from a military background, civilians will say things like: Have you shot anyone or killed anyone?” says Jacquie.

They are also reluctant to share their experiences. One reason is the Official Secrets Act, which prevents them from sharing certain information. A more poignant reason is the fear of appearing vulnerable.

“In the armed forces they were dehumanised, told not to feel and they were never re-humanised when they came out,” explained Jacquie.

They feel much more at ease when in the company of their peers, as they share common experiences and banter.

“Being in the military, you have an instant bond with other veterans,” Paul tells me. “I felt that in other treatment centers the patients weren’t understanding the emotional baggage that I was carrying.”

War Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan Not Yet in Rehab

I was expecting most of the patients of Tom Harrison House to be veterans of the recents conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As it turns out most of the patients in treatment are veterans of the much older Northern Ireland and Falklands conflicts.

“It will take another 5 years before we can expect lads from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq coming in” said Frank. This timeline was confirmed by Jacquie as well, who said that “armed forces guys are the least likely to ask for help”. When treating addiction in veterans the focus is on developing a sense of self-control and on expressing feelings.

Frank and Paul are examples of ex-soldiers that have found the road to recovery and want to help others find it as well. But like their past selves, there are many of the tens of thousands of British soldiers that have fought in recent conflicts that still struggle and are yet to find help for their addiction.

Image courtesy of davidkrigbaum.deviantart.com

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