Soldiers committing suicide

By JASON NOTTE  |  March 17, 2009

"If you get a vet who is addicted to a substance, because maybe they were getting benzodiazepine (Klonopin) in combat and really liked it and became dependent on it, and they return and are unable to go to the VA, they're going to find a suitable substitute," says Peterson. "The closest to benzodiazepine is alcohol. Benzos are kind of like prescription alcohol."

At the very least, abusing drugs can result in dishonorable-conduct charges for military personnel and, arguably more important in this wretched economy, the loss of VA benefits. Many of the doctors interviewed for this story expressed a desire to avoid such scenarios by treating PTSD and other mental ailments through individual psychotherapy and drug treatment with proper follow-up, but the VA is sticking to its guns . . . and missing the point. Individual therapy is resource intensive, yes: more money, more training, and more treatment time. But medication and group therapy, though cheap at first, hold hidden costs — not the least of which are too many unhealed soldiers with broken minds and lifetime drug dependencies, some haunted to the point of suicide — for a VA system that has treated 402,872 patients from Iraq and Afghanistan alone since 2003, according to numbers obtained by the Phoenix. "If they're just medicating away a feeling, the whole experience isn't going to go away," says Peterson. "They're still going to have guilt and shame and anger and all of the feelings they had, but they're just going to be numb to those feelings."

A losing battle
The military and its personnel are trapped between schools of thought when it comes to prescription drugs and a soaring suicide rate. Many military health experts applaud the use of psychotropic medications in the field and believe they are valuable in preserving troops' mental well-being. The lack of effective prescription and monitoring, however, has led Pogany, Darwin, and others to say that medication alone won't solve the military's problems.

"The way medications are being dispensed to people in theater," says Pogany, "the underlying behavior modification is that you're teaching people to deal with their problems through medication. When I sit down and interview people, they say that 90 percent of their battlefield treatment is medication. We're talking heavy-duty anti-psychotic drugs without follow up or close monitoring."

Critics compare the failure to monitor prescription-drug use to general failures within the Iraq War. While recognizing that the drop in troop deaths in combat during this past year can be attributed to the surge — and its attendant increased number of doctors in the field, proximity of aid stations to the front lines, and the gradual handover of security duties to Iraqi troops — these critics note that the surge may not be worth the multiple deployments and medications used to fuel it.

"Are US fatalities down?" asks Sullivan of the benefits of the surge. "Yes. Are US casualties in Iraq down? No. Is the Iraqi government in control of its own laws? No, because US military and contractors have immunity. Does the Iraqi government have control of its military? No. Does the Iraqi government have control of its entire country? No. Do the Iraqi people have water, power, jobs? All of those are no. So, in fact, the surge is a complete failure, except for the one variable of US service member deaths."

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