Veterans find military experience helps their recovery efforts

By Sarah Kelly

The recovery community has its own language. We often speak it without even realizing we’re doing it. We grow accustomed to certain
words, phrases and nuances. This can be an adjustment when first seeking recovery.

I remember mimicking the things I heard and just trying to say the “right thing” to fit in. I had been a chameleon for so many years adjusting to any group I surrounded myself with. From fancy cocktail hours in Washington D.C., to dive bars in sketchy places, I had a knack for adjusting socially to my surroundings. This skill was something I used as I found sobriety, and luckily only lasted a short time until I found myself and my voice.

Another unique community I’m familiar with, having worked in it for about a decade, is the military community, which also has its own language. The first meeting I ever sat in within it, I felt like they were speaking Japanese. I didn’t understand anything. It was acronyms and phrases I’d never heard. The military’s unspoken language, the formality and body language, seemed completely foreign.

This got me thinking about how veterans and service members navigate coming into recovery. Are there two barriers to overcome, both a civilian culture and a recovery community language? I set out on a quest to learn more. And what I learned really surprised me.

“Being in the military has worked in my favor,” says Dan Blake, a veteran Marine and member of the Maine National Guard. Dan was deployed twice into Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has been free of alcohol or drugs for over a year and a half.

“I always knew I had a problem, but it didn’t transpire into accidents. I was always chasing someone else’s party,” he says. He described the world of drinking before and after Afghanistan. There were definitely differences in using alcohol for fun vs. as an escape from reality, but he didn’t feel he faced the really harsh consequences.

Dan informed me that some of the slogans often heard in various recovery programs originate from the military. He laughed and shared, “KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. That’s from the military. I already speak this stuff.”

Lightness aside though, Dan has experienced real pain as a result of both his tours and his addiction. “There are just some people you don’t drink with,” he says, referring to those who return home with pains of wartime trauma. The journey to healing has deepened his connection to his values.

“The Marines introduced me to integrity, but I didn’t have the maturity to know what that was. Recovery has taught me that integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking,” Dan says. “Recovery has given me opportunity.”

Kristen Fissell has been sober for more than two years. Also a veteran, she sought help for her drinking while still on active duty in the Coast Guard. Her recovery journey began with seeking help outside of the military and going straight to recovery resources. Once sober, Kristen went to treatment for trauma, where she also found help for substance use disorder. She shared her experience with the process of trauma healing within the military: “There was less understanding in 2015, but I think that things are getting better.”

Kristen and Dan share similar viewpoints that military life actually proved helpful in her recovery journey. Similar to the military, Kristen felt like her path of recovery was “well outlined with really clear actions and expectations.”

“I did think it (military background) was useful,” says Kristen. “Take direction, and you’ll do well. That mentality served me quite well. I didn’t need to challenge the authority of the program and its messages because I knew it was created to help me. I know a lot of people who come into recovery feeling they can’t trust someone else or a system – and logically so after what some of us have been through. But, in the military, I was taught to trust orders because you believe in the mission, which was something higher than me. I felt like recovery was similar, so I could trust those who offered their help in sobriety recovery.”

She has felt welcomed into the recovery community as both active duty and as a veteran. And, at times, she feels her military background has been beneficial. She recalls one night in Texas when she was in a recovery group meeting that hadn’t been very welcoming, “As soon as I said I was in the service, I suddenly got more respect.”

What I learned from these conversations that came as a surprise was that having a military background did not create a barrier to feeling welcomed into the recovery community. The languages of both are far more similar than I realized. We all are part of unique subcultures, and yet when we come together in shared experiences, we may find we are more alike than we realized.

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