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HOT TOPICS: Drug and Alcohol Treatment  Heroin

This Is Our Military on Drugs

Alcohol and heroin addiction haunted soldiers in the Vietnam War. Today's troops, plagued by IED injuries, have turned in staggering numbers to Rx painkillers and marijuana for relief. It's America's invisible epidemic.

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Sgt. Ryan Begin in 2004. Photo via

By Katie Drummond

07/13/12

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In many ways, Ryan Begin's experience with drug addiction sounds like an all-too familiar one: A five-year blur of pill popping, overdoses, arrests and hospitalizations; frayed relationships with family and friends; unemployment, isolation, depression and suicidal thoughts.

But Begin's ordeal had something of an unexpected catalyst: His time in the Army. “My life went downhill from the moment I came back from Iraq,” Begin told me earlier this year.

During his second deployment to Iraq, in 2004, Sgt. Begin's convoy was struck by an IED. His injuries left him with an amputated arm that required 30 different surgeries, chronic full-body pain and the kinds of harrowing nightmares and flashbacks symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Upon returning stateside, Begin was treated by military doctors at Maryland's Bethesda Naval Hospital. Their version of treatment? Dose the 23-year-old with dozens of prescription drugs, including narcotic painkillers, antidepressants and antipsychotics. “I had so many pills, I needed a backpack to carry them wherever I went,” he recalls. “I didn't even know what was a symptom and what was a side effect.”

Begin increasingly relied on the drugs to keep pain at bay, bestow a sense of mental calm and alleviate the stress and anxiety inherent, for some veterans, in readapting to civilian life. And with doctors happy to hand over prescription after prescription, Begin had easy access to those vices—which he blames, in part, for spurring several accidental overdoses, suicide attempts and violent outbursts that led to jail time. In 2009, he was hospitalized, and then institutionalized, after attempting to overdose on 90 Valium. Only months later, he repeated the suicide attempt with the anti-anxiety med Klonopin; after his stomach was pumped, he was sent home with a new prescription for the same drug. 

“The son that left for Iraq was not the son that came back,” Ryan’s mother, Anna Begin, said last year. “Let me put it as simply as I can: Every single day, my son was suicidal.”

The military's alcohol ban seems to facilitate, rather than mitigate, bingeing and alcoholism.

Begin's ordeal is hardly an isolated incident among soldiers and veterans from this generation's wars. As reported in part one of this series, an estimated 17% of active-duty personnel “misuse” prescription medication, 11,200 soldiers were busted for using illegal drugs in 2011, and between 24% and 38% of soldiers are estimated to qualify as “heavy drinkers.”

In large part, experts say, that's because the military's policies—on everything from on-base alcohol consumption to prescription medications—are making access to addictive substances far too easy for American war-fighters. “These substances have become an integral part of the military experience for so many soldiers,” says Dr. Dessa Bergen-Cico, an addiction expert at Syracuse University and author of War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse. “From a public health perspective, this is a problem we really need to be dealing with.”

For soldiers, as for civilians, three categories of substance threaten to become addictive: alcohol, illicit drugs and narcotic painkillers. In the military, however, access to these substances occurs under different circumstances and policies, and those distinctions can make the prospect of addiction among military personnel much more potent than in the civilian realm.

At face value, the military's policies regarding alcohol usage appear reassuringly stringent: As per the military's “General Order No. 1,” a soldier can face discharge or criminal charges if they're found “possessing, consuming, introducing, purchasing, selling, transferring or manufacturing any alcoholic beverage,” during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. (The ban on alcohol was issued in part in response to Muslim cultural sanctions.) There's little indication, however, than the order has been rigorously upheld. Reports have consistently emerged from both countries of officers either turning a blind eye to alcohol acquisition and consumption, or even partaking in a few drinks themselves.

Over the last decade, dozens of war-zone crimes committed by soldiers have involved alcohol—illustrating just how loosely the military's ban is enforced: The 2005 rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by a group of American soldiers, for example, occurred after the soldiers “[drank] several cans of locally made whiskey supplied by Iraqi Army soldiers,” according to The New York Times.

The more recent case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is yet another example. Bales, who in March allegedly shot and killed 16 Afghan civilians, is reported to have covertly consumed alcohol on-base, before later departing on a killing spree that is arguably the worst war crime to have been committed during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Bales had also been wounded twice in combat and is said to have been going through financial and domestic difficulties.)

Ironically, the military's alcohol ban seems to facilitate, rather than mitigate, binge drinking and alcohol addiction—as is true for many abstinence-based prevention efforts. The sense of restriction inherent in an all-out booze ban lends itself to excessive consumption whenever alcohol is available, and lax enforcement means that soldiers are able to access alcohol—whether from military contractors, soldiers from other countries or even disguised packages from home—with relative ease.

Our troops' demoralization is evinced by a tripling of suicides since 2001, many related to alcohol and drug use.

The problem of slack regulations, combined with soldiers stressed to the brink—and often desperate for an outlet—isn't lost on military brass. At least, not on paper. “The enforcement of policies designated to ensure good order and discipline has atrophied. This, in turn, has led to an increasing population of soldiers who display high-risk behavior,” reads a 2010 Army report revealing deep demoralization among troops as evinced by a tripling of suicides since 2001, many of which were related to alcohol and illegal or prescription drug use.

Surveys of soldiers themselves corroborate the problems surrounding alcohol access: A groundbreaking survey, published in 2009, polled 16,000 active-duty soldiers and found that 43% were “frequent binge drinkers” and that a significant proportion of soldiers drank excessively more than twice each week. Illicit drugs are yet another problem. In particular, soldiers fighting in Afghanistan are surrounded by opium—the country produces 90% of the global supply—and this easy access has turned some American troops into addiction-addled users. The Pentagon hasn't released numbers on the specific extent of the military's heroin problem. But a series of Army reports, released earlier this year, revealed that the eight American soldiers deployed to Afghanistan died of heroin overdoses in 2010 and 2011. Furthermore, the report noted, the number of soldiers busted for heroin use has soared since the war's dawn—from 10 soldiers in 2002 to 116 in 2010.

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