WASHINGTON (WJBF) – Many active military members and veterans suffer in silence. There are few substance abuse prevention and mental health programs for veterans and their families, according to the SAFE Project. Mental health challenges can lead to drug addiction and overdose, according to Jeff Horwitz, veteran and SAFE Project chief operating officer.

“We have to have open conversations that make people understand addiction is a disease, that there are many pathways to that addiction whether it’s mental health challenges or something else,” Horwitz said.

Ronald Baldwin Sr. joined the army 12 days after graduating high school in 1978. He was honored to follow in his father’s footsteps, who’s a navy veteran. Although he heard stories from his father’s military experience, nothing prepared him for what he would actually go through.

Baldwin started smoking marijuana in high school but saw more drug use in the army. He said there were no limitations to the opioids and other drugs he took, which later became an addiction. The serviceman also developed an addiction to alcohol.

“It was a fear alternate to help you deal with the fear that you had facing these unknown dangers,” Baldwin said.

He was discharged in 1981 and wasn’t prepared to transition back into civilian life. Baldwin said he dealt with mental health issues that he didn’t know how to express to anyone. Suppressed emotions led him to continue his drug and alcohol addiction and to be arrested 27 times.

“For 20 years, I was in and out of drug institutions. For 20 years, I lost my self respect, my dignity,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin has been sober since 2010 and has co-founded an organization called Males to Men United. The organization is a veteran mentorship group that focuses on confidence and mental health.

The army veteran has also taken on creative ventures like writing and acting. He has a poetry book called “Voices: The Root of My Rhyme” and acted in a drama series called “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”

The SAFE Project offers a veterans wellness program that aims to help veterans and active military members with substance abuse and mental health issues. In addition, they offer a program called “Your Ruck,” which focuses on the emotional wellbeing of military families.