Friday, June 13, 2008

“America’s Medicated Army:” The Future of our Soldiers and How they Cope with War?

By: Jenny Walters

In recent months, reports about rising suicide rates for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been on the rise.

An article entitled, America’s Medicated Army, by Mark Thompson, focused on medicating our soldiers with antidepressants “to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”[1] According to the Army’s fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report, an anonymous survey of U.S. troops in fall 2007 revealed about 12% of combat troops in Iraq and 17% of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help cope with the stress of war. Unfortunately, due to the stigma surrounding antidepressant use and the need for mental help among soldiers, the above numbers are more than likely a vast underestimate of the actual number of medicated soldiers.1

The increase in the use of antidepressants and sleeping pills reflects the “heavy mental and psychological price being paid by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.”1 A recent Pentagon surveys suggests 70% of soldiers deployed to war zones manage to “bounce back to normalcy;” while 20% will suffer from “temporary stress injuries” and the remaining 10% are affected by “stress illnesses.” According to the Pentagon, stress injuries or illnesses begin with mild anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and growing feelings of apathy and pessimism. As the symptoms progress, they worsen to include panic, rage, uncontrolled shaking, and temporary paralysis. When the soldier returns home, escalating symptoms can further lead to broken marriages, suicides, and psychiatric breakdowns.1

In 2008, mental trauma has become so prevalent among soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon is now considering expanding the list of “qualifying wounds for a Purple Heart…to include posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD).”1

The use of medications to cope with wartime stress has been debated for years among insiders in the service. According to a book entitle Combat Stress Injury: “No magic pill can erase the image of a best friend’s shattered body or assuage the guilt from having traded duty with him that day. Medication can, however, alleviate some debilitating and nearly intolerable symptoms of combat and operational stress injuries and help restore personnel to full functioning capacity.”1 Ultimately, medications keep the soldiers fighting and deployed, and save the Army money on training and deploying replacements.1

One military doctor remarked: “Boy it’s nice to have these drugs…so we can keep people deployed.” Whereas, professionals such as Dr. Frank Ochberg, a veteran psychiatrist and founding board member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress studies, doubts the use of medications stating: “Are we trying to bandage up what is essentially an insufficient fighting force?”1

As side effects of antidepressants become more prevalent, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) pushed for a “black box” warning stating “the drugs may increase the risk of suicide in children, adolescents…and went on to include young adults ages 18 to 24,” the average age of the military force fighting the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.1

As of May 29, 2007, 115 soldiers killed themselves last year, including 36 in Iraq and Afghanistan.1 This was the highest military suicide rate since 1980. According to Thompson: “Nearly 40% of Army suicide victims in 2006 and 2007 took psychotropic drugs-overwhelmingly, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft.” The army reported the primary reason for the above suicides to be due to “failed relationships.” However many civilian experts “sense a link between suicides and prescription drug use.”1

As medicating U.S soldiers becomes more and more prevalent; it is important to understand some of the facts about what the soldiers are faced with on a day to day basis. According to a recent mental-health survey conducted by the U.S. Army: “while nearly two-thirds of the soldiers surveyed in Iraq in 2006 knew someone who had been killed or wounded, fewer than 15% knew for certain that they had actually killed a member of the enemy in return.” This “imbalance” leads soldiers to experience “a haunting mismatch in combat life….and contributes to feelings of intense fear, helplessness, or horror.”1

According to military psychiatrist, because our soldiers are faced with horrors we could not imagine, thousands are being driven to take antidepressants just to cope with day to day life of wartime in Iraq and Afghanistan.1

Thompson stated: “If troops do not get sufficient time away from combat…antidepressants and sleeping aids will be used to stretch an already taut force even tighter. Lawrence Korb, Pentagon personnel chief during the Reagan Administration went on to state: “This is what happens when you try to fight a long war with an army that wasn’t designed for a long war.”1

Marc Thompson’s article on the medicating of today’s Army was compelling, riveting, and disturbing. Ultimately, the U.S. Army appears to be medicating our young soldiers just to keep them sane enough so they can fight another day in Iraq and Afghanistan. What I don’t understand is: why aren’t we hearing more about this; how dose the Army justify this; and what will become of our young troops?

As stated above, the average age of our troops is 18 to 24. To many of us, the soldiers are just children. Many of these soldiers are coming home with immense amounts psychological trauma. However, instead of receiving combined therapy with counseling and, if required, medication; they are administered their monthly prescriptions for some “happy pills,” in hopes the medication will cover up and/or help to ease their pain.

Ethically, the Army’s concept of medicating our troops to keep them deployed and fighting longer does not work. What is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is alarming. As we approach a new presidential term, I can only hope for a better future, and maybe, just maybe someone will step in and put an end to this travesty and bring our troops home.

[1] Thompson M. America’s Medicated Army. Time. June 2008. Available at:,8599,1811858,00.html. Accessed on Jun 08, 2008.

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