The Iraq War—On Drugs

BY Terry J. Allen

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Ready for deployment is not the same as mentally healthy, and the army's long-term interests smack hard against its need for warm bodies, no matter how dangerous continued action may be to an individual's mental health.

Wounded U.S. soldiers are being patched up and returned to battle before they are healed. The wounds in this case are to the psyche, caused by the trauma and horror that are as integral to war as guns and death.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, when “suck it up” fails to snap a soldier out of depression or panic, the Army turns to drugs. “Soldiers I talked to were receiving bags of antidepressants and sleeping meds in Iraq, but not the trauma care they needed,” says Steve Robinson, a Defense Department intelligence analyst during the Clinton administration.

Sometimes sleeping pills, antidepressants and tranquilizers are prescribed by qualified personnel. Sometimes not. Sgt. Georg Anderas Pogany told Salon that after he broke down in Iraq, his team sergeant told him “to pull himself together, gave him two Ambien, a prescription sleep aid, and ordered him to sleep.”

Other soldiers self-medicate. “We were so junked out on Valium, we had no emotions anymore,” Iraq vet John Crawford told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross. He and others in his unit in Iraq became addicted to Valium.

The issues around mental health and medication are exacerbated for the more than 378,000 troops who have served multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) caused by a previous tour are cropping up in later ones.

“It concerns us when we hear military doctors say, ‘It’s wonderful that we have these drugs available to cope with second or third deployments,’” Joyce Raezer of the National Military Family Association told In These Times.

“But that statement makes military spouses cringe,” she continues, “Soldiers are saying ‘we don’t have time to recover.’”

Marine psychiatrist Cmdr. Paul S. Hammer confirmed to San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Rick Rogers that Marines with PTSD are returning to Iraq.

In many cases, their problem is labeled stress. “Army docs have told me that commanders pressured them not to diagnose PTSD because it would cut into combat power–the ability to project men and women into war,” says Robinson. “The docs admit that the decision [to misdiagnose] is unethical, but are unwilling to take the huge career risk of becoming a whistle blower.”

“The military has an obligation to ensure your readiness,” says Raezer. “It is in its long-term benefit to have the person healthy.” But those goals may conflict with themselves and with reality. Ready for deployment is not the same as mentally healthy, and the army’s long-term interests smack hard against its need for warm bodies, no matter how dangerous continued action may be to an individual’s mental health.

All these factors promote that classic American solution: Better living through chemistry. When effective, antidepressants and sleeping pills can enable a soldier to get back in action–either from a huddle of terror and disgust, or increasingly, from back home to serve an additional tour.

But the use of brain-altering medications must be monitored for effectiveness and safety, which is beyond the Army’s capability in Iraq. The medications can take weeks to kick in, dangerously interact with other medications or fail to work at all. Side effects can include organ damage and thoughts of suicide.

But if the problem is bad for the occupying army, it is far worse for the Iraqi civilians, who have few medical resources and no end in sight to the constant fear and deprivation that occupation has brought.

“The [Iraqi] Ministry of Health says since the U.S. invasion there’s been a 35 percent jump in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder [in Iraqis],” reported NPR Baghdad correspondent Jamie Tarabay.

Keith Humphreys of U.S. Veterans Affairs documented a substantial rise in drug use in Iraq resulting from the terrible stress of daily life. Drugs that would require a prescription in the United States are available in drug stores and many Iraqis are turning to them for relief.

Former biology undergraduate Rorla Monere began taking sleeping pills to dull the pain and fear after witnessing the kidnapping of a close friend who was thrown into a car and later raped; a suicide car bomb left another of Monere’s close friends in a wheelchair. Afraid to go out, Monere stays at home, terrified that someone will storm the house.

“The pills don’t have any effect anymore,” she told NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “because I take so many of them. I just want my day to finish. I spend it alone. … My wish is to die, to be free and rest. Better than this slaughter.”

Some U.S. soldiers know how she feels. In a May 2 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wrote, “Last year’s suicide rate was the highest since 1993. Eighty-three Army soldiers on active duty committed suicide, 25 while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan–a 24 percent increase over the prior year. I find it simply astonishing that the sheer magnitude of the mental health crisis facing our Armed Forces does not compel you to action.”

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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