WUKY In Depth
9:23 am
Tue October 23, 2012

Why Vets Drink: Alcohol and Substance Abuse in the Military

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The U.S. military is no stranger to alcohol.

Ryan Donahue, a 27-year-old Louisville native, worked as an aircraft mechanic on the USS Eisenhower during Operation Enduring Freedom. The “party hard” mindset helped break up the monotony of constant training and work.

“When you are deployed for six or seven months, every day is the same. You’re shooting off airplanes, the same time launches, the same inspections. Every day is the same.”

After his four years in the Navy were up, Donahue started college.

“I went to Eastern Kentucky University for my undergraduate [degree] and I was in a fraternity. They don’t party nearly as hard as the Navy does,” says Donahue.

Public Health Crisis

The U.S. has been involved in two wars over the past decade, and alcohol has always been part of military culture. But the rise in substance abuse and military suicides called for a serious look at the issue. A recent study by the Institute of Medicine found that in 2008 (the most recent year data were available), 47% of active duty military personnel had engaged in binge drinking. Eleven percent reported misuse of prescription drugs.  

“It’s the availability of drugs. It’s the stress that they’re under. And it’s a problem for them while they’re on active duty as well as when they’re discharged and they’re now veterans,” says  Dr. Charles O’Brien, a researcher from University of Pennsylvania who chaired the committee that wrote the report for Congress and the Department of Defense.

Military Stress

Matt McKenzie, is a sergeant in the Army National Guard who served two tours in Iraq. The church-going boy from a small town in eastern Kentucky was just 20 when he first deployed in 2004.

“My first go around I was a clean-cut kid.”

A military vehicle hit by an improvised explosive device. - photo courtesy Sgt. Matt McKenzie

McKenzie quickly learned that emotions in a war zone have consequences. So he buried them, even the images from roadside bombs.

“We showed up and there’s just limbs everywhere. I mean these two little girls just… you see arms here… I mean just destroyed. And I know I came home and I was the most cold-hearted person you would’ve ever met.”

By the time McKenzie’s tour was up, his demeanor had changed.  He says something as simple as a chicken dinner with his parents took him back to the monotony of war.

“You won’t understand what it’s like for the Army to cook 50 different ways of chicken. There’s grilled chicken, barbeque chicken, chicken on a bob. I remember coming home and my mom was like ‘Well we’re going to have barbeque chicken, your dad is gonna grill out.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m going someplace else to eat.’”

Just Want to Relax

McKenzie’s unit deployed to Iraq again in 2009, and the stress of combat and reintegration also returned, this time with the added weight of being a newlywed.

Sgt. Matt McKenzie talks to an Iraqi boy in 2005. - photo provided

“I was married for two months and then I was gone for eight. And coming home my wife was constantly saying ‘I need your help. I need you to do this.’ And I would just sit there and want to drink a beer. It’s like I just need to sit here and relax for a minute.”

McKenzie also turned to fellow guardsmen and watched old war movies as ways to cope. He says reports of increased alcohol use in the military aren’t surprising.

“There’s some people that can handle their alcohol and then there’s others that just use it as a numbing factor.”

The military is working on intervention programs to help veterans with post traumatic stress, depression, and substance abuse. Coming up on Thursday, WUKY will look at the effectiveness of current programs and other possible solutions.  

This story is the first in a 2-part series from WUKY and NPR's Impact of War project.