This Is Our Military on Drugs - Page 2

By Katie Drummond 07/13/12

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

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Soldiers overseas have myriad options when accessing, including bartering with Afghan locals or scoring the drug from members of the Afghan Army. “Despite the claims of the US government that it is actively engaged in trying to curtain the drug trade in Afghanistan,” noted Jeremy Hammond at Foreign Policy Journal last year, “heroin is readily available to US troops, including just outside the Bagram military base.” 

Access to alcohol and heroin, combined with the stresses wrought by lengthy wars, repeated deployments and the unique circumstances of this generation's military population (all-out booze bans, combat zones rife with opium) are problematic enough. But the availability of prescription drugs is, arguably, a dilemma even more severe—and one that threatens to leave thousands of soldiers and veterans grappling in the throes of addiction. Even worse: the military's own doctors often serve as ostensible “dealers” providing soldiers with these habit-forming prescription cocktails. “The medics or the doctors are working with what they have, often to help a soldier cope with physical pain or a problem like insomnia,” Bergen-Cico says. “But these prescription drugs take so much of the edge off that they become addictive psychologically as well as physically.”

Medications like opiate-based painkillers Vicodin and OxyContin and the antipsychotic Seroquel are prescribed with stunning frequency among military personnel. More than 110,000 active-duty soldiers were prescribed at least one prescription medication, most often an antidepressant or antipsychotic, last year. A 2010 Army study concluded that 14% of soldiers were prescribed an opiate painkiller—95% of which were for OxyContin. Between 25% and 35% of wounded soldiers are addicted to such meds, according to a Pentagon report issued last year.

The availability of prescription drugs leaves thousands of soldiers and veterans in the throes of addiction.

And with so much medication floating around—much of it prescribed in 180-day supplies to soldiers on extended deployments—trading and sales among troops are exceedingly common. “They'll often have a medicine cabinet full of drugs, and they'll pass them around,” Dr. Judith Broder, a psychiatrist and founder of a nonprofit counseling service for soldiers, told me last year. “That this isn't being tracked is terrible.”

Despite acknowledging a growing problem with prescription narcotics, the Pentagon still doesn't effectively track the meds. Officials are, however, making an effort. Earlier this year, top brass announced plans to expand random drug tests—which already screen for marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines, and sometimes steroids or opiates—so that they'd include Xanax and Vicodin. The military's research community is also at the forefront of investigations into the biological mechanisms behind addiction: A $15-million Army program, for example, launched just last week, will see scientists nationwide pursue “the discovery and development of new medications to treat alcohol and substance abuse in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder and combat injury.”

Former Staff Sgt. Begin considers it something of a miracle that he stopped the pill-popping before a suicide attempt succeeded. Ironically enough, his recovery only started when he abandoned his military doctors, and the drugs they prescribed, in favor of yet another “illicit” product—one that, in contrast to substances like alcohol and Oxy, military leaders flat-out refuse to tolerate: pot.

In March 2011, Begin saw a civilian doctor and was prescribed medical marijuana for his chronic bodywide pain. Not only did the weed relieve Begin’s aches, but it soothed the anxiety, insomnia, rage and instability associated with PTSD. “I told my military doctor that marijuana was helping me more than anything else,” Begin recalls. “He said I could choose: Keep smoking pot, or keep getting prescriptions. I went with the pot, and that was it.”

Yet the Obama administration seems to be going out of its way to prevent Begin and other vets from accessing pot for pain. In addition to raids and arrests by the DEA on medical-marijuana suppliers, last September the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) blocked the first-ever FDA-approved clinical trial to evaluate marijuana as a potential treatment for PTSD. With an estimated 37% of this generation’s vets afflicted with PTSD, and few truly effective treatments available, Begin begs to differ.

That’s why he launched an online petition asking the feds to change their course on marijuana as a treatment for PTSD. Since then, Begin has met with legislators in his home state of Maine, and works as a veterans liaison for a nonprofit, the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine. His top priority: Having the state add PTSD to the list of conditions for which patients can qualify for medical marijuana. 

Now, Begin smokes a few joints every day—enough to curb his physical pain, stave off anxiety attacks and help him sleep. His military service meant access to myriad narcotics, stimulants and depressants, as it still does for thousands of active-duty soldiers and veterans. But Begin, for one, would prefer access to what he considers the much lesser of all evils. “I just didn't want to be shoved full of pills anymore,” he says. “I know this works for me.”

This is the second in a three-part series on the epidemic of addiction among US soldiers and the military. 

Katie Drummond is a reporter for Forbes magazine, a contributing editor at The Daily, and a freelance writer for outlets including Wired.com, New York magazine and Prevention.

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Katie Drummond is a is the deputy editor of Medium. She has been a reporter for Forbes magazine, a contributing editor at The Daily, and a freelance writer for outlets including Wired.com, New York magazine and Prevention. You can find her on Linkedin and Twitter.