Prescription Drug Use in Combat
(This is the second of a series of posts highlighting the important work of the veteran owned and operated GI coffeehouse movement. Coffee Strong at Fort Lewis is continuing their September fundraising drive, as they are well-short of their $20,000 goal. In addition to providing desperately needed GI support, GI coffeehouses remain one of the strongest and consistent voices in the antiwar movement. Please go to http://www.coffeestrong.org/ and donate generously. Under the Hood at Fort Hood http://www.underthehoodcafe.org/ equally deserves your support.)
The massive stress resulting from repeated, unpredictable deployments is also a major culprit in the development of PTSD and suicidal depression among troops deployed in the Middle East. During Vietnam, Pentagon officials recognized the increased risk of PTSD with guerrilla and urban warfare. Accordingly they made a deliberate effort to reduce stress levels by limiting combat deployments to twelve months, after which a GI could count on returning to the US to complete his two year service requirement.
Although current deployments are shorter than during Vietnam, our Middle East troops can be required to serve as many as eight or more deployments over a much longer period of active duty. In theory, enlisted GIs are assigned active duty for four to six years and finish their eight year contract in the reserves. Under the Bush administration’s controversial Stop Loss policy, thousands of troops were forced to return to combat even after their term of enlistment ended. Obama ended this controversial policy in February 2011.
Suicide Rates Higher among Reservists and National Guard
According to the Pentagon, the suicide rate is even higher among the 28% of front line troops who are reservists and National Guard (http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20110119_4296.php). Troops mobilized to active duty from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Reserves also sign an eight year contract. Historically there has been a 24 month cumulative deployment limit on reservists and National Guard. This was reversed, owing to military manpower shortages, following the invasion of Iraq. Secretary of Defense Gates has subsequently implemented a cumulative twelve month limitation for National Guard deployed in the Middle East.
While the stress of urban and guerrilla warfare and high stress deployment schedules clearly play a role in high GI suicide rates, the Pentagon’s insane policy of returning servicemen with TBI, PTSD and clinical depression to the battlefield – many while still on one or more psychotropic medications – clearly compounds the problem. A July 2010 Army report reveals that one-third of all active-duty suicides involve prescription drugs.
Drugging Troops We Send Into Combat
How can this be happening? Why is the US government sending troops into combat under the influence of powerful psychoactive drugs. I have worked with numerous veterans and active duty personnel in my thirty plus years as a psychiatrist. In past conflicts, there has always been an absolute taboo against servicemen on psychotropic medication serving in combat. This relates in large part to common side effects of antidepressants and antipsychotics – dizziness, sedation, lack of coordination and cognitive dulling – that place both the soldier himself and his team at serious risk in high intensity urban warfare that requires split second decision making.
Another major concern is the notoriously low response rate to psychotropic medications in patients with depression and/or PTSD. Research indicates that at most 50% of patients with clinical depression experience full remission – even after trying three or four different medications. Moreover the use of psychotropic medication is not a recognized treatment for PTSD – with 10%, at most, of patients responding favorably.
Dr Grace Jackson, a former Navy psychiatrist, resigned her commission because she believes that the US Central Command (CENTCOM) is destroying our defense force by sending troops into battle on psychotropic medication. Likewise both Dr Greg Smith, a Los Angeles pain and prescription drug abuse specialist, and Ithaca psychiatrist Dr Peter Breggin have testified to Congress with similar concerns (http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20110118_8944.php).
Insufficient Manpower to Fight Seven Wars
A close look at Depart of Defense manpower figures makes it pretty obvious that the Pentagon is pursuing this insane policy for the same reason that they are subjecting troops to unpredictable, high stress deployment schedules. Both Bush and Obama are determined to circumvent the immense unpopularity of the War on Terror by relying on an all-volunteer army (it was the universality of the draft – especially among well-educated middle class – that fueled the anti-Vietnam War movement). Unfortunately this all-volunteer army has proved totally inadequate to meet the manpower needs of a permanent imperial war on seven fronts.
According to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, US forces are slated to remain in Iraq for at least one more year and could remain an occupying force in Afghanistan until 2024. The US currently has 90,000 troops in Afghanistan and 44,000 in Iraq http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/06/22/world/asia/american-forces-in-afghanistan-and-iraq.html
This is on top of more than two million veterans already deployed to the Middle East and discharged – and more than 160,000 active duty servicemen deployed to other countries targeted under Operation Enduring Freedom (i.e. against “terrorists” in the Philippines, Columbia, and the Horn of Africa) and on military bases in other parts of the world.
All this is taking place in a decade where the percentage of 18 to 24 year olds continues to decline in proportion to the rest of the population – and where recruitment is nose diving, owing to growing popular opposition to the War on Terror.
Troop deployments by region
- Africa 4,000
- Asia 61,000
- Europe 80,000
- Kuwait 10,000
- Qatar 8,000
- Bahrain 1,500
- Central and South America (including Guantanamo): 2,000
To be continued.