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March 23, 2010, 10:28 PM
When The Washington Post revealed in 2007 the disgusting conditions endured by injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, the right wing blogosphere raced to blame the messenger and throw water on the outrage. Then, silence. There have been similar right wing blackouts on veteran/soldier suicides, health impacts from the burn pits overseas, and the overwhelming 1.1 million backlogged veterans’ claims at the VA, a system which one senior official recently admitted, “cannot be fixed.”
It’s amazing how a political faction, so steeped in sanctimony about “honoring our troops,” can turn heel and sprint away at the first sight of war’s true devastation. Let me amend that at the first of sight of anything politically inconvenient to their aggressive interventionist worldview. What indeed are they afraid of? That their distortions, manipulations and embellishments about the glories of war will be revealed so achingly in the soldier hanging by a noose in his parents’ modest middle American home?
If so, there is bound to be another blackout on this most recent report. Good thing it’s coming from the Military Times, so as to at least ensure that the story itself will be circulated well within the military and beyond on both sides of the spectrum. And it will be that much harder for the right wing talkers to trash on its face.
Turns out the government has spent upwards of $1 billion on “common pain and psychiatric medications” for soldiers from 2001 to 2009. The military is drugging up soldiers more than ever – 76 percent more than at the start of the two-front war and in doing so, keep them in the ranks, in the field, behind .50-caliber machine guns and engaging in patrols, despite physical and emotional pain, depression and post traumatic stress likely held-over from previous tours in-country.
One wonders how far the military will go to keep warm bodies in the warzone.
The Military Times report, published a week ago, tries to answer the question and what it finds is nothing less than staggering :
- Troops and military health care providers also told Military Times that these medications are being prescribed, consumed, shared and traded in combat zones despite some restrictions on the deployment of troops using those drugs.
- The investigation also shows that drugs originally developed to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are now commonly used to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as headaches, nightmares, nervousness and fits of anger….
- Antidepressants and anticonvulsants are the most common mental health medications prescribed to service members. Seventeen percent of the active-duty force, and as much as 6 percent of deployed troops, are on antidepressants, Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist, told Congress on Feb. 24.
- In contrast, about 10 percent of all Americans take antidepressants, according to a 2009 Columbia University study.
The reporters’ analysis mirrors results from a survey taken of some 28,000 active duty soldiers and Marines and published in December 2009. In that Pentagon assessment, one in four troops admitted to abusing prescription medication mostly painkillers in a one-year period; as many as 20 percent of Marines said they too, had abused pills. Two percent of those surveyed said they had thoughts of suicide, and 60 percent of Marines said they had engaged in binge drinking over the course of the year.
The Military Times article goes farther, breaking down the actual medications of choice:
- * Antipsychotic medications, including Seroquel and Risperdal, spiked most dramatically orders jumped by more than 200 percent, and annual spending more than quadrupled, from $4 million to $16 million.
- * Use of anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives such as Valium and Ambien also rose substantially; orders increased 170 percent, while spending nearly tripled, from $6 million to about $17 million.
- * Antiepileptic drugs, also known as anticonvulsants, were among the most commonly used psychiatric medications. Annual orders for these drugs increased about 70 percent, while spending more than doubled, from $16 million to $35 million.
- * Antidepressants had a comparatively modest 40 percent gain in orders, but it was the only drug group to show an overall decrease in spending, from $49 million in 2001 to $41 million in 2009, a drop of 16 percent. The debut in recent years of cheaper generic versions of these drugs is likely responsible for driving down costs.
Worse, is the description of how the drugs are prescribed seemingly on the fly and for things they have not been tested for, and how they are eventually used in unpredictable “cocktails,” encouraging suicidal thoughts, hyper-aggression or making the user feel like some kind of extra from the movie Dawn of the Dead.
- Other side effects cited by troops who used such drugs in the war zones include slowed reaction times, impaired motor skills, and attention and memory problems.
- One 35-year-old Army sergeant first class said he was prescribed the anticonvulsant Topamax to prevent the onset of debilitating migraines. But the drug left him feeling mentally sluggish, and he stopped taking it.
- “Some people call it ‘Stupamax’ because it makes you stupid,” said the sergeant, who asked not to be identified because he said using such medication carries a social stigma in the military.
- Being slow or even “stupid” might not be a critical problem for some civilians. But it can be deadly for troops working with weapons or patrolling dangerous areas in a war zone, said Dr. John Newcomer, a psychiatry professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a former fellow at the American Psychiatric Association.
One veteran interviewed for the story recalled his brief brush with suicide, the result of new antidepressants he was put on during combat duty:
- Spc. Mike Kern enlisted in 2006 and spent a year deployed in 2008 with the 4th Infantry Division as an armor crewman, running patrols out of southwest Baghdad.
- Kern went to the mental health clinic suffering from nervousness, sleep problems and depression. He was given Paxil, an antidepressant that carries a warning label about increased risk for suicide.
- A few days later, while patrolling the streets in the gunner’s turret of a Humvee, he said he began having serious thoughts of suicide for the first time in his life.
- “I had three weapons: a pistol, my rifle and a machine gun,” Kern said. “I started to think, ‘I could just do this and then it’s over.’ That’s where my brain was: ‘I can just put this gun right here and pull the trigger and I’m done. All my problems will be gone.’”
- Kern said the incident scared him, and he did not take any more drugs during that deployment. But since his return, he has been diagnosed with PTSD and currently takes a variety of psychotropic medications.
This all reminded me of an outstanding series written by Dave Philipps at the Colorado Springs Gazette last year. In it, he profiled members of the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, otherwise known as “the bloody brigade.” Stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, the brigade had taken disproportionate numbers of casualties in Iraq, being there at the peak of the post-invasion violence in 2005 and then again during the surge in 2007. In between, members of the unit were accused of a spree of violent behavior within the community off-base, including brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings and kidnapping. The murder rate among Fort Carson soldiers overall was 114 times the rate of Colorado Springs and 20 times the rate of young males nationwide.
A common thread among the young men profiled by Philipps was not just their arrest records, but their abuse of pain killers and anti-depressants.
In one exchange, vet Anthony Marquez explains his condition:
- Marquez started destroying himself with the pills that were supposed to help him.
- For his injuries, he said, doctors at Evans prescribed him 90 morphine pills, 90 Percocets, and five fentanyl patches every three weeks.
- “They were for pain,” he said. “And I still had pain. But, mostly, I was using them to get high.”
- He could not get Iraq out of his head. Doctors prescribed antidepressants and sleeping pills, but he said they didn’t help. He was saving up Percocet, then downing a handful on an empty stomach.
- He said he started trading his morphine with other soldiers for an antipsychotic called quetiapine and an anti-anxiety drug called clonazepam. Improper use of either can cause psychotic reactions, anxiety, panic attacks, aggressiveness and suicidal behavior, but, Marquez said, injured soldiers traded them like children in a lunchroom swapping desserts.
- “It was real common among the guys who were hurt,” Marquez said.
- At one point, Marquez said, he ate his three-week supply of meds in half the time, then went back to Evans claiming he had lost his pills.
- He said a doctor told him security measures prevented him from giving Marquez more narcotics, but he could write the soldier a paper prescription he could fill in Colorado Springs.
- Marquez agreed.
Then there’s veteran and convicted accessory to murder, Kenneth Eastridge, who was all but 24-years-old and in prison at the time the series was published last August. Wiped out on pills for PTSD and a felony warrant out for his arrest (he was accused of sticking a gun in his girlfriend’s face), the Army still sent him back into Iraq for a second tour in 2007. Known for having the “most kills” of anyone in his unit, Eastridge described his much-awaited return to the warzone:
- At first, Eastridge said, he enjoyed the intensity of it. He had a competition going with Bressler to see who could kill more bad guys. His final count, he said and his sergeant confirmed was about 80.
- But after a few months, the raids, gore and constant threat of roadside bombs started to get to him. He couldn’t sleep. He was on edge all the time. Doctors at the base diagnosed him with PTSD, depression, anxiety and a sleep disorder. They gave him antidepressants and sleeping pills and put him back on duty. When he went back to the doctors a few weeks later saying the pills were not working, his medical records show, they doubled his dose.
When I was going back to the series today I noted with despair that one of the men featured in the series, John Needham, had died in February from an apparent adverse reaction to medication he was taking in the wake of a recent back surgery. Needham, 25, once described as a happy-go-lucky California surfing champion, was one of the “bloody brigade’s” tragedies: he saw nasty combat in Iraq, and was prescribed things like Zoloft when he thought he was “losing it,” before being promptly returned to duty by Army field doctors. After the sixth IED attack, he got drunk and tried to shoot himself in the head. He was returned home to Walter Reed with a belly full of stories about atrocities he said he saw committed by fellow soldiers and officers. His father said the Army wanted to eventually return him to duty overseas, but his family fought for the troubled boy’s discharge. “Groggy and vacant from pills,” he suffered from severe flashbacks, though the VA refused him inpatient care. Such was his condition when he was accused of beating his ex-girlfriend to death during a fight, his father told The Gazette. Needham had also been profiled in Salon’s heartbreaking “Coming Home” series, which is ongoing on their website.
There is so much to absorb here. The Military Times report indicates more than a few sordid things that the military is knowingly rotating sick soldiers into combat under the influence of powerful painkillers, anti-depressants and other psychotropic drugs, some of which have been negligently prescribed and/or are being used as part of a mindblowing cocktail of other drugs. Second, the pharmaceutical companies are really cleaning up, just like they do in the civilian world. Thirdly, if all goes as planned, we will have some 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and at least (if draw-downs go as planned), another 50,000 in Iraq by the end of the summer. So the military wins another round at faking out the “Army is broken” meme. But one wonders how many of these soldiers and Marines are on their second, third, fourth tours, or how many pills it takes them to get through the day. Seems as though they are the real losers in this equation. But how long can it all last?