Learning from how Vietnam War veterans kicked their addiction
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Vietnam War veterans kicked their addiction

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.” – Aldous Huxley

The military and President Nixon’s White House had a problem in 1971.

The contested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was coming to a close, and the administration wanted to bring back our boys in a parade of support, partly as a public relations effort toward the anti-Vietnam War counterculture. Nixon’s administration was aiming to segue into his War on Drugs campaign as a needed shift to reunite the nation. But there was one problem.

Amid the warring, trauma and the waiting to come home, more than 23,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam became addicted to heroin. Notoriety was already spreading about the scientifically proven, nearly inescapable hold opiates have on addicts. How could soldiers come home like this?

The short answer is they wouldn’t. The military needed to plug this problem, and fast, so Operation Golden Flow was introduced. Its efficacy has been largely skimmed over in history, but what our nation – currently besieged by the same addictions – can learn from the operation is encouraging.

Operation Golden Flow and its lasting lesson

Operation Golden Flow was more indicative than its creators understood at the time. The strategy was pretty cut and dry: U.S. soldiers in Vietnam couldn’t board a plane bound home until they passed a urine test drug-free. Soldiers who failed would simply be left in Vietnam to detox and retest.

“The expectations were low, given the extraordinary addictiveness of heroin,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta writes. At the time, scientists were revealing research explaining why heroin and other opium derivatives were “the most addictive substance[s] ever produced and impossible to escape.”

However, “only 5 percent of the men who returned home after becoming addicted in Vietnam relapsed within a year. Just 12 percent relapsed, even briefly, within three years.” This rate is remarkable in clinical terms.

So what was different about the soldiers than addicts here at home? How can the success of Operation Golden Flow be emulated?

A change in environment

There are several noteworthy markers that stand out from the Vietnam soldiers addicted to heroin:


  • Failure was nonnegotiable; they would never go home unless they let go of heroin
  • The use was singularly associated with their presence in Vietnam, as use began and would end in that geographical and wartime triggering environment
  • A return home and restationing meant the group of fellow addicts would be separated; soldiers anticipated losing those acquaintances
  • There was no great prelude to cessation; the soldiers quit heroin “cold turkey” and supply was almost entirely interrupted once soldiers got on the planes


According to a study released this spring by England’s Department of Health, smokers who quit cold turkey were 25 percent more likely to remain smoke-free.

Psychologists David Neal and Wendy Wood study addiction as it relates to habit and environment. Their studies have led them to conclude that applying the same “golden flow” strategy to personal dependencies – by abruptly switching up environment or altering habits – will begin to de-escalate addictions.

Addiction, after all, is a brain disease that involves the mind running so incessantly in pursuit of pleasure-center stimulation that dopamine receptors become burned out and require increasingly more substances just to feel relief.

“It may be changing around the furniture in a room where you are likely to have a drink. As Neal described, if you are going to continue to eat ice cream, try using your left hand if you are right handed, or perhaps eat it only while standing up. Slowly these environmental changes may cause you to break the behavioral cue,” Gupta illustrates.

Sovereign Health of California offers different locations that help to promote recovery for those struggling with mental disorder and addiction. Sovereign offers that healthy, personal space to detox and rehabilitate. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn more about our programs.

About the author

Sovereign Health staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

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