Opiate use was common among American soldiers deployed in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War including heroin and other illicit drugs. The 1970’s ‘heroin epidemic’ impacted a large percentage of United States soldiers serving overseas and increased the number of drug-related hospitalizations and overdose deaths. A rapid rise is currently happening among youth in America and has been since the 1960s. Learn more about what is being done to combat heroin addiction in Vietnam vets and young people in America today.

Golden Flow

Stressful combat situations experienced during war along with the widespread availability of cheap, high-quality and potent heroin in Vietnam were major factors (among others) which contributed to the high rates of heroin use among American soldiers. In response to the growing heroin epidemic among soldiers serving in Vietnam, President Richard M. Nixon declared a ‘War on Drugs,’ through a Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP) a program was developed called Operation Golden Flow.

Operation Golden Flow required soldiers to submit a urine sample for drug screening (urinalysis) prior to return of United States soldiers who tested positive for opiates, amphetamines, or barbiturates. Early intervention for drug addiction was provided and soldiers went through a detox process for five to seven days prior to the return home. A 1973 Vietnam Drug User Returns report produced indicated approximately 1,400 of the 13,760 Army-enlisted men who returned to the United States from Vietnam in September 1971 tested positive for drugs including narcotics, amphetamines and barbiturates at the time of departure.

Follow-up Studies

The SAODAP assisted in a follow-up study of military men who returned from Vietnam to the United States in September 1971. The number of positive drug tests decreased following the onset of Operation Golden Flow. Rates went down to 1 percent among soldiers and only 5 percent of men who returned home after becoming addicted in Vietnam experienced a relapse within a year. Approximately 12 percent of soldiers relapsed within three years.

Environmental Factors

Addiction was recognized as a disease of the brain during the time of Operation Gold Flow’s inception. Environmental factors impacted soldiers who experienced myriad emotions ranging from boredom to stress and anxiety. Vietnam’s location and culture was vastly different from the United States but soldiers were surrounded by widespread use and availability of the drugs. Potent and cheap, soldiers turned to drug use as a way to self-medicate or deal with stressful and horrific experiences during combat. It is thought the decreased rate of addiction in soldiers within the U.S. came as a result of a shift in environmental factors once soldiers returned from Vietnam.

Early Intervention

Genetics and environmental factors are both key risk factors in addiction. Much can be learned from how the heroin epidemic was dealt with successfully in the past and how the high rate of success seen with Operation Golden Flow opened the door to greatly reduced rates of abuse including early intervention strategies.

Early intervention is the key to helping a loved one combat addiction. For families whose loved ones are experiencing addiction, help is available. Call us to find out how our resources can support you and your family on the journey to recovery from addiction.