Soldiers committing suicide

By JASON NOTTE  |  March 17, 2009

According to numbers obtained by the Phoenix from the VA via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, of the 5439 Iraq and Afghanistan vets treated (for any symptoms) in Massachusetts since 2003, 277 were treated for prescription-drug addiction. That includes 147 treated in Boston.

"When we started out in 2004, we thought [soldiers' families] would need us a lot more when individuals were deployed, and [figured that] then the guys would come home and, in a couple of months, everybody would be fine," says Dr. Jaine Darwin, co-director of Needham-based nonprofit group Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists (SOFAR), which gives free psychological care to families of reservists and National Guardsmen deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That's just not what has happened."

Darwin says that, all too often, upon returning, the soldiers cannot relate to their families — their wives, their kids, their parents. They are completely alienated from everything and everyone they knew before. "The fact is that there is no normal," she says. "There's the new normal, and the new normal is how you negotiate relationships between separations and reunions."

Other factors
Army Special Forces Staff Sergeant Andrew Pogany describes a young soldier's fatal overdose the way you might order soup at a deli: in plain English and without embellishment. "They labeled the kid a liar and a drug seeker, then he went home and overdosed, and now he's dead."

Such are the effects of half a decade of dealing with the military justice system. It's been that long since Pogany himself suffered hallucinations and panic attacks in September 2003 — which he claims are a result of taking Lariam, an anti-malaria medication that the military orders troops to take — and just as long since military doctors prescribed sleeping pills to wash away Lariam's side effects. Pogany has seen 17 other servicemen from his former base in Fort Carson, Colorado, commit suicide during that same of time.

In early 2004, Pogany faced a court-martial (and a possible death sentence) for cowardice. Acquitted, he later that year was medically retired from the Army with an honorable discharge, at which point he moved to Washington, DC, to become an investigator for the National Veterans Legal Services Program, an independent agency that provides legal assistance to veterans with difficulties similar to his own. Throughout his ordeal, Pogany says, he has learned all too well what stress can do to a soldier, and says the military hasn't learned a thing. Troops who evidence symptoms of being what Pogany calls "suicides in the making," he claims, "are being overlooked and they are being ignored."

PTSD is just one root cause of the spike in US troop suicides. Other theories finger such suspects as, among others, Army-issued medicines (such as Lariam), lowered recruiting standards, and multiple deployments for troops.

While no direct links have been drawn between either Lariam or increased use of psychotropic drugs and a growing military-suicide rate, their parallel course is, at best, inconvenient. Also eye-opening on the medicinal front, according to the US Army Medical Department's 2008 mental-health report, at least 13 percent of US troops in Iraq and 17 percent of US troops in Afghanistan are taking antidepressants, anxiety medication, or sleep aids. This adds to the New England Journal of Medicine's 2004 finding (the most recent statistics available) that 11 percent of military recruits had psychiatric histories before entering the military and the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center's May report, which found that the same percentage of surveyed active-duty personnel had at least one prescription for psychotropic medication within a year of deploying.

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