Prescription Drug Abuse in the Military

During the Vietnam War, the country’s proximity to the prolific Southeast Asian poppy fields made it easy for drug smuggling rings to flood the war zone with bountiful supplies of cheap heroin. Estimates are that as many as 20 percent of all American soldiers who served in Vietnam after 1970 eventually became addicted to this illegal opiate, as the drug’s tranquilizing effects helped ease the fear and incessant tension that inevitably plagued the vulnerable young men who were forced to face unseen enemies and persistent threats to life and limb on a daily basis.

Easy Prescription Access for the Modern-Day Military

But in the modern era, men and women serving in the treacherous urban neighborhoods and barren wastelands of Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have to self-medicate in order to get relief from the intense daily pressures brought on by constant exposure to danger. This is because the military has chosen to set up its own drug dispensaries in every location where uniformed personnel might conceivably be deployed.

Fighting men and women need only to report to Pentagon physicians or psychiatrists or the Veteran’s Administration back home. Where suitable, they’ll receive prescriptions for whatever antidepressant, anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety or pain-killing medication could relieve their misery.

Over-prescription of Pills?

Prescription medications can certainly contribute to healing in many instances. But are military doctors going to that well too frequently? Between 2002 and 2011, Department of Defense physicians wrote approximately $6.8 billion worth of prescriptions for veterans and active duty personnel. By 2009, more than one in six service members was taking at least one prescription medication (many take more).

Drug Addiction and Suicide

No one knows for sure how many service men and women have developed addictions to prescription medications, but there are some studies that suggest the number is quite high. For example, the Pentagon now sponsors an extensive Warrior Care and Transition program that provides mental and physical rehabilitation services to sick and/or wounded soldiers. And a 2010 Army Inspector General Agency investigation estimated that 25-35 percent of the men and women housed in these units nationwide were addicted to one or more prescription medications.

Meanwhile, another 2010 Army report linked prescription drug abuse to more than one-third of all suicides that had occurred among active service personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in our most recent wars. Substance abuse experts who have studied the problem believe that epidemic levels of prescription drug addiction help explain why the 2005-2011 suicide rates for veterans were twice as high as rates for the public in general.

Alternative Medicine and the Military

Medication has helped keep exhausted, hurting young men and women performing under incredibly stressful battlefield circumstances. It also has brought relief to veterans suffering from permanent physical injuries, PTSD and various other types of disabling mental health conditions. But this has created a whole new generation of drug-addicted service members, and the Pentagon is only now taking steps to address this sad situation. A system has been set up to monitor the prescriptions military medical personnel are distributing much more closely, and 90 percent of all VA medical facilities have begun offering alternative treatments for pain and disability such as acupuncture, yoga, biofeedback and meditation.

In the wake of enduring U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, handing out prescription drugs like Halloween candy may have seemed like the perfect quick fix. But the young people who serve our country honorably and selflessly deserve better. We can only hope that the military establishment’s sudden interest in alternative forms of healing will lead to lasting change in the ways sick and injured veterans, active duty soldiers, and military support personnel are tended to in the future.

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