New York Magazine reports:
Even at the lowest point of the Global War on Terror—in April 2004, say, when the number of casualties was spinning out of control and it looked like there was no end in sight—morale among our troops ran fairly high. Yet today, with casualties tapering and a slightly improved prognosis for stability, our troops, by every conceivable external measure, are falling apart. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars make up a disproportionate number of the jobless; the Army’s divorce rate, which used to be lower than the civilian population’s, has surpassed it and is higher still among those who’ve deployed. A spokesman at Fort Drum, home to the 10th Mountain Division here in New York State, tells me by e-mail that one-quarter of its 20,000 soldiers have “received some type of behavioral health evaluation and/or treatment during the past year.” Defense Department spending on Ambien, a popular sleep aid, and Seroquel, an antipsychotic, has doubled since 2007, according to the Army Times, while spending on Topamax, an anti-convulsant medication often used for migraines, quadrupled; amphetamine prescriptions have doubled, too, according to the Army’s own data. Meanwhile, a study by the Rand Corporation has found that 20 percent of the soldiers who’ve deployed in this war report symptoms of post-traumatic stress and major depression.The number climbs to almost 30 percent if the soldiers have deployed more than twice.
“I feel like people with my symptoms are becoming the majority of the Army,” says a major from the New York area who recently started taking Effexor, an antidepressant, and a variety of sleep meds after a second tour in Iraq. “Feeling anxious when you don’t have a reason to, being a little depressed, having low-grade anhedonia, not sleeping well—this is the new normal for those of us who’ve been repeatedly deployed.”
The Army’s own research confirms that drug and alcohol abuse, disciplinary infractions, and criminal activity are increasing among active-duty service members. Most ominously, a growing number of soldiers can’t handle the strains of war at all. Until three years ago, the suicide rate of the Army, the branch with by far the most men and women in this war, was actually lower than the American population’s—a testament to the hardiness of our troops, given that young men with weapons are, at least as a statistical matter, disproportionately prone to suicide. But in 2008, the Army suicide rate surpassed that of the civilian population’s, and the Marines’ surpassed it shortly thereafter. So grim is the problem that this summer, the Army released a remarkably candid suicide report. “If we include accidental death, which frequently is the result of high-risk behavior (e.g., drinking and driving, drug overdose),” it concluded, “we find that less young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions. Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.”
In other words, nearly as many soldiers are dying at home today as are dying abroad.
The New York Times reports:
In his last months alive, Senior Airman Anthony Mena rarely left home without a backpack filled with medications.
He returned from his second deployment to Iraq complaining of back pain, insomnia, anxiety and nightmares. Doctors diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed powerful cocktails of psychiatric drugs and narcotics.
Yet his pain only deepened, as did his depression. “I have almost given up hope,” he told a doctor in 2008, medical records show. “I should have died in Iraq.”
Airman Mena died instead in his Albuquerque apartment, on July 21, 2009, five months after leaving the Air Force on a medical discharge. A toxicologist found eight prescription medications in his blood, including three antidepressants, a sedative, a sleeping pill and two potent painkillers.
Yet his death was no suicide, the medical examiner concluded. What killed Airman Mena was not an overdose of any one drug, but the interaction of many. He was 23.
After a decade of treating thousands of wounded troops, the military’s medical system is awash in prescription drugs — and the results have sometimes been deadly.