When Darren “Chappy” Chapman signed up for the U.S. Navy in 1979 at the age of 18, he was already on his way to full-blown alcoholism.
Joining the armed forces, the Alcoa resident told me this week, “was like walking into heaven for an alcoholic.”
“They embraced it — work hard and play hard,” said Chapman, who is now in recovery, serves as the pastor for Williamson Chapel United Methodist Church in Maryville and is a Continuous Care recovery coach at Cornerstone of Recovery. “As time went on, the military got away from that, and they frown upon it now, but back then, it was encouraged, almost.
“When you walked into the common area of a barracks, they’d have six soda machines. One had Pepsi products, the other had Coke products, and the rest were full of beer. Soda was 75 cents, and beer was 50 cents, so where do you think I went to save money?”
On this Memorial Day, individuals and communities across the country will observe, honor and commemorate the ultimate sacrifices of military personnel who died in the line of duty. (Reminder: Veterans Day, in November, honors living servicemen and women, and while “Happy Memorial Day” may seem like a standard salutation, the actual reason for the observance is a somber one.)
There are, however, a great many veterans who didn’t die in combat, but because of their participation in it, a part of them did. I’m talking about the men and women who leave the armed forces with addiction and alcoholism, often as a way to self-medicate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other psychological issues brought about by situations and choices and sheer terror that most civilians will never, ever understand.
And because of their military training and conditioning, it’s sometimes incredibly difficult for them to admit they have a problem and get the help they need when they leave active duty status.
“We refer to them as moral injuries, or spiritual wounds,” said Rod Jackson, the program director at Stepping Stone to Recovery in Louisville. “There are things in the military that can hinder recovery — especially the idea of ‘no surrender, no retreat,’ which is something that a lot of veterans won’t say up front, but they’ve internalized.”
According to one study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “one in four veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of a mental or cognitive disorder; one in six reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These disorders are strongly associated with substance abuse and dependence, as are other problems experienced by returning military personnel, including sleep disturbances, traumatic brain injury, and violence in relationships.
“Young adult veterans are particularly likely to have substance use or other mental health problems. According to a report of veterans in 2004-2006, a quarter of 18- to 25-year-old veterans met criteria for a past-year substance use disorder, which is more than double the rate of veterans aged 26-54 and five times the rate of veterans 55 or older.”
And the problem isn’t limited to veterans. While rates of addiction (termed “substance use disorder” in medical parlance) are lower among active-duty military personnel than the general population because of a federal zero-tolerance policy that may lead to dishonorable discharges or even criminal prosecution, the rates of alcoholism (“alcohol use disorder”) are higher.
According to the NIDA, reports of binge drinking increased by 12 percent — to almost 50 percent total — among active-duty service personnel over a 10-year period. And while 20 percent of military personnel reported binge drinking every week for the month prior to taking the survey, the rate among combat veterans was 7 percentage points higher.
And yet veterans remain one of the most vulnerable groups at risk for the consequences of addiction and alcoholism — joblessness, homelessness, incarceration — because the same qualities that made them excellent soldiers keep them from ever asking for help when they need it most.
Why? A lot of it is the stigma associated with addiction and alcoholism. There’s still a large percentage of individuals who believe that addiction or alcoholism are choices or moral failings; when a veteran internalizes that mistaken thinking alongside the stoic mentality of “adapt and overcome,” the inclination to seek treatment is greatly diminished.
And so, rather than dying overseas in combat where they’re remembered as heroes on this Memorial Day, they’re fading from existence in homeless camps, city centers and prisons, until their diseases claim their lives. And instead of remembering them as vets who made the ultimate sacrifice, we shake our heads and think, “What a waste.”
Make no mistake: They’re every bit the heroes as those we honor on Memorial Day. The things they’ve seen and done may not have taken their lives, but they created spiritual and psychological wounds that kill them slowly through drugs and alcohol, and that, friends, may be more tragic than the end of any hero who falls on the battlefield.