Studies Show: Veterans Are People Too

Last week, CNN reported on the causes of death of two ex-Navy SEALS who had been working as security for the Maersk Alabama, the container ship featured in the film Captain Phillips.

More than a week later, the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the two men are still under investigation. Autopsies revealed respiratory failure as the cause of death, but the presence of a substance which is suspect to be heroin in the men's cabin brings the question of substance abuse into light.

Therefore, CNN took the opportunity to write the following:

"Although substance abuse is a known problem among veterans, acquaintances of Reynolds' and Kennedy's told the New York Times they were shocked at the idea that either man had used heroin."

As a veteran and as an American, I was appalled at this rash generalization that substance abuse is a known problem among veterans. Why does our current culture and news media insist on highlighting the worst about veterans?

In online reports for NBC, CBS, The Huffington Post, TIME magazine and Fox News each reported simply the facts about the case. Each was able to provide information on the deaths of two veterans without defaming the 22 million living Americans who have served our country.

CNN was unable to hold back.

A New York Times article,which seems to have been a source for CNN did not do much better. They reported, "While veterans, especially those returning from war zones, have shown a high prevalence of substance abuse and other risky behaviors..."

While the Times' characterization does no favors to veterans, at least the author used qualifying statements that make the generalizations less damning. Specifically, they pair "risky behaviors" with "substance abuse," as a way to significantly change the intent of the statement. CNN, on the other hand, took the liberty of removing all qualifications to essentially say veterans have drug problems.

It's no secret that there are veterans who use illicit drugs, and the two men found on the Alabama may well be counted in those numbers. However, there are also instances of illicit drug use amongst lawyers, plumbers, mayors, body builders, actors, factory workers, models, investment bankers, football players, politicians, real estate agents, news anchors and on and on. In short, substance abuse is a known problem among people.

And veterans are people. So why single them out?

Rack your brain. In the myriad reports on the death of beloved actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman did you ever see a report that stated, "Substance abuse is a known problem among actors?"

Likely not.

So, I did some research. Looking through more than a decade of National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, I found a few statements.

First, the NSDUH intentionally does not survey active military:

"...the survey excludes active military personnel, who have been shown to have significantly lower rates of illicit drug use."

"NSDUH data have consistently shown that, even after accounting for demographic differences between the military and civilian populations, the military personnel had higher rates of heavy alcohol use than their civilian counterparts, similar rates of cigarette use, and lower rates of illicit drug use."

In a the same survey from a different year:

"An estimated 0.8 percent of veterans received specialty treatment for a substance use disorder (alcohol or illicit drugs) in the past year compared with 0.5 percent of comparable nonveterans."

Bear in mind that data about "seeking treatment" is different from that of "illicit drug use." Therefore, the most recent data I could find on illicit drug use amongst veterans was the following:

"Within all age categories, male veterans and nonveterans had similar rates of past year illicit drug use."

And from the same report:

"Because the majority of veterans were males, comparisons between veterans and nonveterans were limited to males aged 18 or older. Among males aged 18 or older, the rate of any illicit drug use was lower among veterans (6 percent) than nonveterans (16 percent). This difference was consistent for whites, blacks, and Hispanics."

It quickly became apparent to me why the New York Times was careful about their wording -- subdividing the population and offering "risky behaviors" alongside "substance abuse" as a descriptor of some veterans. There isn't much data out there to compare the general American population to the general veteran population.

But, CNN fell into the trap of generalizing a small amount of data into a broad statement about the millions of men and women who have served this country. Based on the statistics, we can estimate that upwards of 94 percent of all veterans do not use illicit drugs. That alone should dictate the standard of reporting on veterans and drugs.

Let's hope that someday we can get to a place where popular culture and the news media do not automatically default to a less than honorable portrayal of veterans.

Let's hope that someday our veterans can get the benefit of the doubt that we extend to our beloved actors, sports stars and members of Congress.