Substance Abuse Programs for Air Force Veterans

Members of the Air Force, like other military branches, dedicate their lives to the people and the freedoms of the United States. Air Force members accept the risk to their physical health, but sadly, despite their selflessness, they also put their mental health in danger. Addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may affect Air Force veterans, but veterans suffering PTSD and substance abuse can receive help. Fortunately for former members of the Air Force, substance abuse programs for veterans are available (VA) substance abuse programs and VA community care programs.

Air Force Service and the Risk to Mental Health

Air Force uniform on flag

 Military service carries tremendous rewards and daunting burdens. Numerous stressors linked to active duty can contribute to mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and addiction, and increased suicide risk.1

Air Force servicemembers appear to have lower-than-average rates of depression, PTSD, and alcohol use disorder. For example, one study found that just under 5% of Air Force veterans returning from deployment met the criteria for PTSD, compared with 18% in Navy service members. However, individuals in the Air Force are not immune to these disorders.1  In fact, due to many service members’ reluctance to report mental health symptoms, the rates could be much higher. 1

To address service members’ mental health needs, the Air Force is placing to emphasize the well-being of its members with the Air Force Resilience program. The program strives to promote:2

  • With educational programs for leaders, prevention focuses on identifying, overcoming, and resolving challenges before they build to problems. Guides include topics like PTSD, sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more.
  • By helping leaders detect and maneuver through crises, the intervention section serves to improve reactions when problems emerge.
  • When an unwanted event like a suicide or a violent act occurs, the postvention phase helps survivors deal with the aftermath.

Are You in Crisis?

To address and prevent potential crises, the military offers multiple hotlines for active duty Air Force, veterans, and their families to gain assistance. People can call or connect to:

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with suicidal thoughts, help is available 24/7.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Veterans can also utilize the Veteran Crisis Line via text 838255 or via online chat with a crisis counselor.

Warning Signs of Addiction in Air Force Vets

Depressed veteran

The warning signs of addiction may vary depending on the individual, but many physical, mental, and behavioral indicators of substance use are the same. Common signs of addiction include:3

  • Decrease in performance and attendance at work.
  • Secretive or suspicious behavior.
  • Sudden and unexpected mood swings.
  • Drastic shifts in sleep, appetite, and activity levels.
  • Acting nervous, scared, or paranoid with no reason.
  • New and shifting friend groups.
  • Bloodshot eyes and large or small pupils.
  • Rapid changes in weight.
  • Poor self-care and hygiene.
  • Strange or bad smells on clothes, body, or breath.
  • Shakiness, slurred speech, and poor coordination.

People who display these warning signs of addiction may have a substance use disorder. A substance use disorder is a mental health condition characterized by symptoms such as:4

  • Using a drug, or drugs, more or for longer than intended.
  • Trying to quit or cut down but failing.
  • Spending large chunks of time getting, using, and recovering from a drug.
  • Having strong urges and cravings to use.
  • Failing to accomplish responsibilities at home or work due to drug use.
  • Experiencing social and relationship issues because of the drug.
  • Showing less interest in pleasurable activities.
  • Using the substance even when it jeopardizes physical or mental health.
  • Needing more of the substance over time to achieve the wanted effects—an indication of tolerance.
  • Feeling odd or ill when none of the substance is available—an indication of dependence.

By navigating to the VA Substance Abuse Screening assessment, a person can answer a few questions to see if their use is considered high, moderate, or low risk.

Rehab for Air Force Vets

Woman meeting with doctor

If you are a veteran with TRICARE coverage, you may be eligible to receive treatment for a substance use disorder at a VA rehab center. TRICARE covers services that are medically necessary and considered proven, which means you may need to do some research and provide evidence that supports a treatment’s effectiveness for a given issue.

TRICARE plans and coverage vary, but may include services such as:5

  • Inpatient care.
  • Residential, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs.
  • Withdrawal management/detoxification services.
  • Medication-assisted treatment.

To find TRICARE-covered rehab programs, you can navigate to the TRICARE-covered Services webpage to gain information about available services that meet your needs.

TRICARE may require prior authorization for mental health, family counseling, and other specialty services. A prior authorization means that the care must be approved by a regional contractor before the scheduled appointment takes place. In Nevada and other western states, TRICARE is administered through TriWest, so TriWest will dictate treatment authorizations.

Be sure to consult the TRICARE prior authorization page for more information. Regardless of prior authorization, people facing a mental health crisis should always seek immediate care through to the nearest emergency department.

Air Force ADAPT Program for Active-Duty Servicemembers

Active-duty members of the Air Force can access the ADAPT program – Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment – to receive education, a thorough evaluation, and treatment when needed. The program hopes to help reduce the stigma of mental health and substance abuse among military members and return servicemembers to full duty status following successful treatment.6

Accessing Rehab Outside the VA

When the VA is unable to provide the care you need through a VA facility, it allows for you to receive treatment in your area through the Veterans Community Care program. The availability of the Community Care program depends on:

  • Specific eligibility requirements.
  • VA care in the area.
  • Needs of the veteran.
  • Special circumstances involving care.

Air Force veterans interested in accessing community care from the VA should access the VA Location Finder tool for more information about services in their area.

Desert Hope, an American Addiction Centers facility, is an approved community care provider. Desert Hope’s specialized veterans’ treatment uses a comprehensive approach that targets substance abuse as well as other mental health conditions, like PTSD and depression, that commonly co-occur with addiction.

The structured programs at Desert Hope provide the evidenced-based treatments vets need to decrease their symptoms, establish a period of sobriety, and improve their overall well-being. Effective treatment is the path to recovery.

Transition Assistance Program for New Air Force Veterans

Retiring from the Air Force and transitioning back to civilian life can pose many challenges for a service member. These challenges may trigger or exacerbate existing problems with drug use or mental health. Luckily, the Air Force can help with its Transition Assistance Program (TAP). The TAP can help service members and their spouses:7

  • Prepare for civilian life.
  • Pursue educational opportunities.
  • Find a new career.
  • Start a business.

The program is available for people with at least 6 months of active duty and can begin more than two years before the servicemember’s planned transition date.7 TAP is administered by Airman and Family Readiness Centers. To find a location near you, visit this locator tool.

Though the transition back to civilian life may seem simple, the process can create many unforeseen problems, so the extra assistance from TAP can be a welcomed resource. Air Force members have earned the nation’s respect, and they deserve only the finest care and resources available.


  1. Mustillo, S. A., Kysar-Moon, A., Douglas, S.R., Hargraves, R, Wadsworth, S.M., Fraine, M., and Frazer, N. L., (2015). Overview of Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Alcohol Misuse Among Active Duty Service Members Returning From Iraq and Afghanistan, Self-Report and DiagnosisMilitary Medicine, Volume 180, Issue 4, April 2015, Pages 419–427.
  2. U.S. Air Force. (n.d.) Air Force Resilience.
  3. (2019). Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders.
  4. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
  5. TRICARE. (n.d.). Covered Services.
  6. Ramsouer, Tammie. (2018). Maxwell ADAPT Provides Airmen with the Tools to Beat Alcoholism, Maxwell Air Force Base.
  7. U.S. Air Force. (n.d.) Transition Assistance Program.
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