Time: “America’s Medicated Army”
This is another post in the series about an Army near the breaking point. I strongly recommend reading the full article, from which the following is just a brief excerpt. This is one of the best researched and written articles I have seen from a US weekly in a long time. For more information see the reference page, which links to the major reports and articles about the problems facing our Army.
“America’s Medicated Army“, Time (5 June 2008) — Excerpt:
For the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The medicines are intended not only to help troops keep their cool but also to enable the already strapped Army to preserve its most precious resource: soldiers on the front lines. Data contained in the Army’s fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report indicate that, according to an anonymous survey of U.S. troops taken last fall, about 12% of combat troops in Iraq and 17% of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope. Escalating violence in Afghanistan and the more isolated mission have driven troops to rely more on medication there than in Iraq, military officials say.
At a Pentagon that keeps statistics on just about everything, there is no central clearinghouse for this kind of data, and the Army hasn’t consistently asked about prescription-drug use, which makes it difficult to track. Given the traditional stigma associated with soldiers seeking mental help, the survey, released in March, probably underestimates antidepressant use. But if the Army numbers reflect those of other services – the Army has by far the most troops deployed to the war zones – about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were on such medications last fall. The Army estimates that authorized drug use splits roughly fifty-fifty between troops taking antidepressants – largely the class of drugs that includes Prozac and Zoloft – and those taking prescription sleeping pills like Ambien.
… Using drugs to cope with battlefield traumas is not discussed much outside the Army, but inside the service it has been the subject of debate for years. “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,” says Combat Stress Injury, a 2006 medical book edited by Charles Figley and William Nash that details how troops can be helped by such drugs. “Medication can, however, alleviate some debilitating and nearly intolerable symptoms of combat and operational stress injuries” and “help restore personnel to full functioning capacity.”
… And professionals have their doubts. “Are we trying to bandage up what is essentially an insufficient fighting force?” asks Dr. Frank Ochberg, a veteran psychiatrist and founding board member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Such questions have assumed greater urgency as more is revealed about the side effects of some mental-health medications.
… Repeated deployments to the war zones also contribute to the onset of mental-health problems. Nearly 30% of troops on their third deployment suffer from serious mental-health problems, a top Army psychiatrist told Congress in March. The doctor, Colonel Charles Hoge, added that recent research has shown the current 12 months between combat tours “is insufficient time” for soldiers “to reset” and recover from the stress of a combat tour before heading back to war.
… And yet the battlefield seems an imperfect environment for widespread prescription of these medicines. … LeJeune says the medications – combined with the war’s other stressors – created unfit soldiers. “There were more than a few convoys going out in a total daze.”
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