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What We Can Learn From the Vietnam War and Heroin Addiction

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Researchers know heroin addictions respond to detox and talk therapy, but the importance of environment may be getting short changed. A decades-old study of Vietnam soldiers sheds new information on the ways environment affects heroin addiction.

The study began in 1971 after two congressmen visited soldiers in Vietnam. When Robert Steele and Morgan Murphy returned to the U.S., they brought news of heroin use among the soldiers, estimating around 15% lived with an addiction. The news prompted President Nixon to create an office to study drug abuse prevention and fund a study to follow addicted soldiers when they returned home to determine how they fared in treatment and beyond.[1]

Vietnam Soldiers and Relapse Rates

US Soldier in VietnamThe groundbreaking study of soldiers gave psychiatric researcher Lee Robins access to soldiers who used heroin during the war. She found only a small percentage of men addicted to heroin in Vietnam started using it again in the United States. While others questioned her results in the 1970s, current researchers point to an environment change as a way to explain the results.

Due to the high rates of suspected addiction, all enlisted men were tested for heroin before leaving Vietnam and 20% of soldiers reported heroin addiction. The men went through detoxification in Vietnam before returning home; and once they returned, Robins’ research showed low rates of relapse.

Changing Environment to Stop Addictive Behaviors

Recent breakthroughs in the science of behavior help explain why so few men returned to heroin use. For men who started using heroin during the war, their use was limited to a certain place. The men used heroin during their breaks and commonly smoked it, because cheap, potent heroin was readily available. By going through the withdrawal and detox period in Vietnam, they returned home to a different environment without the social and environmental cues to use the drug. Behavior researchers say environment has a strong relationship with a person’s subconscious thoughts, making it easier to do something without even thinking about it.

Of the men who reported heroin addiction in Vietnam, only 7% showed addiction symptoms at a follow-up eight to 12 months later. Many still reported drug use, however, shifting from heroin to amphetamines or barbiturates. Men who used drugs before Vietnam and/or used drugs heavily during the war had the strongest likelihood of returning to use or switching to other drugs.[2]

Veterans who did not return to heroin use gave several reasons: they feared getting addicted to heroin; they worried about health problems from using the drug; they didn’t want to get arrested and they knew family and friends strongly disapproved of them using heroin. The reasons for not using heroin were strong motivators for most of the veterans even though many of them said heroin was easy to get after their return to the U.S.[3]

Environment Is Key

What conclusions should someone take away from the research? It’s important to recognize how important environment is to recovery. Changing a person’s environment helps him change his behavior, and leaving behind an old environment that fosters and maintains addiction helps patients build a new life in recovery with a lower chance of relapse.

It may be beneficial, for example, for patients to choose rehabilitation in a different state or city from where they actively abused their drugs of choice – and then stay in that new place to rebuild their lives. Removing themselves from the environment of drug abuse makes it easier to change their outlook and behaviors for the long term.

Of course, environment is not the primary factor in all cases. When the behavior of addiction is motivated by an attempt to heal untreated emotional wounds from the past, long-term psychotherapeutic care is necessary. Since, environment is a recognized factor in the development of drug dependence; however, it’s important to address it during treatment as well.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

If you would like to learn more about heroin addiction treatment programs here at Michael’s House, contact us today. Located in Southern California, we can provide you with the healing environment you need to leave addiction behind forever. Call now.

[1] Spiegel, Alix. (2012). What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits. NPR. Retrieved Apr. 10, 2017 from

[2] Robins, Lee N.; Davis, Darlene H.; & Goodwin, Donald W. (1974). Drug Use by U.S. Army Enlisted Men in Vietnam: A Follow-Up on Their Return Home. American Journal of Epidemiology. Retrieved Apr. 10, 2017 from

[3] Hall, Wayne & Weier, Megan. (2016). Lee Robins’ studies of heroin use among US Vietnam veterans. Society for the Study of Addiction. Retrieved Apr. 10, 2017 from