by: J. D. Heyes
(NaturalNews) Analysts and experts have long maintained that the duration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are having a detrimental effect on the nation's military personnel. Nowhere have the problems of high operational tempos and repeated combat deployments manifested themselves more than in the tens of thousands of soldiers and others who are increasingly being medicated in order to deal with the stress.
With a renewed focus on individual soldier readiness by the Pentagon after a decade of war, it should trouble Defense Department officials – civilians and top officers alike – that nearly 8 percent of active duty Army troops are on sedatives, and another 6 percent are on antidepressants, figures that are up eightfold since 2005.
So many psychotropic drug prescriptions are having an effect on more than just readiness, but also on legal issues affecting military members.
"In a small but growing number of cases across the nation, lawyers are blaming the U.S. military's heavy use of psychotropic drugs for their clients' aberrant behavior and related health problems," The Los Angeles Times reported in early April.
The problem is bad and getting worse
Bart Billings, a former military psychologist who hosts an annual conference on combat stress, said the problem is real and it's growing.
"We have never medicated our troops to the extent we are doing now…. And I don't believe the current increase in suicides and homicides in the military is a coincidence," he told the paper.
Indeed, the Army suicide rate fell for the first time in four years in 2011, the result of aggressive service-wide efforts to identify those having problems early-on.
But the rate is still high. It's about 24 per 100,000 last year, which is higher than a similar demographic among civilians, about 19 per 100,000. Among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, that rate is even higher – about 38 per 100,000.
Other problems are increasing too. "Sexual assault and domestic violence have increased. The percentage of soldiers committing sex crimes has increased 32 percent since 2006," USA Today reported. "The number of domestic abusers in the Army grew by almost 50 percent from 4,827 in 2008 to 7,228 last year. During that same, the number of child-abuse offenders is up 62 percent from 3,172 to 5,149."
Too many meds, too little control
Clearly, the up-tempo has had a negative effect on our fighting force. But making excuses or explaining away the phenomenon is denial, and it's not going to help the Pentagon and Congress solve the problem.
"It's not that we're using them more frequently or any differently," said Col. Carol Labadie, the pharmacy consultant for the Army surgeon general. "As with any medication, you have to look at weighing the risk versus the benefits of somebody going on a medication."
Experts say the problem isn't necessarily in the numbers. It's that you can't regulate the use of such medications in the military as easily as you can in the civilian world.
Follow-up appointments, for example, are few and far between – especially on the battlefield. And soldiers are often sent out into combat zones with six months' worth of medications, enough to trade with their buddies or grab a fistful of pills at the end of a particularly stressful day or mission. Soldiers who have been wounded can easily become addicted to painkillers they are given.
"The big difference is these are people who have access to loaded weapons, or have responsibility for protecting other individuals who are in harm's way," Grace Jackson, a former Navy staff psychiatrist who resigned her commission in 2002 in part out of concern that military shrinks were handing out too many medications, told the Times.
The problem has begun to show up in court, where, increasingly, lawyers for military members on meds have begun to argue – successfully – that the psychotropic drug made them do it.
James Culp, a former Army paratrooper who has since become a high-profile military defense lawyer, says he's recently defended an Army private accused of murder. His defense? The soldier's mental condition was exacerbated by the Zoloft he was prescribed.
"What do you do when 30-80 percent of the people that you have in the military have gone on three or more deployments, and they are mentally worn out? What do you do when they can't sleep? You make a calculated risk in prescribing these medications," Culp told the paper.