Health

IG says up to 35 percent of WTU soldiers have prescription drug abuse problems

This is the third story in an ongoing series.

Between 25 percent and 35 percent of soldiers in Army warrior transition units, special organizations created to help combat-wounded troops recover their health, have become addicted to or are dependent on prescription drugs, according to an Army inspector general investigation reported Tuesday by USA Today.

The paper said soldiers have become particularly dependent on narcotic drugs provided by battlefield doctors or by military hospitals. A Nextgov investigation found U.S. Central Command since 2001 has provided deploying troops with 90-day and 180-day supplies of prescription psychotropic drugs, some of which are highly addictive. Experts said this policy likely contributes to drug addiction problems in the military.

Read the entire Broken Warriors series.Last year, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker estimated almost 14 percent of the force, or 74,463 troops, had been prescribed some form of opiate drug, according to an October 2010 presentation by Dr. Russell Hicks, a psychiatrist at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash.

Hicks, speaking at a conference in Yakima, Wash., said 25,761 troops had two or more active prescriptions for opiates and 72,764 had prescriptions for oxycodone, a powerful and addictive narcotic.

An internal briefing from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program disclosed that at the end of 2009, 295, or 45 percent of the 630 soldiers in the Walter Reed WTU had narcotic prescriptions. The briefing said 181, or 28 percent of the troops in the unit, had a traumatic brain injury diagnosis and another 125, or 19 percent, had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Besides drug addiction, the briefings from Madigan and Walter Reed showed soldiers in the warrior transition units also had alcohol abuse problems. Hicks said 60 percent of the soldiers with PTSD seen in the Madigan intensive outpatient program have a co-occurring alcohol or drug use disorder.

Walter Reed said 69 percent of the soldiers in its alcohol and substance abuse program abused alcohol and another 31 percent abused both prescription and street drugs, including opiates, sedatives and cocaine.

Nextgov reviewed the drug records of a soldier in a warrior transition unit diagnosed with PTSD who was prescribed a wide range of drugs during the past year, including oxycodone; lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug; trazodone, an antidepressant; and zolpidem, a sleep aid. The family of this soldier, who has been to multiple substance abuse programs, blames the Army for her addiction.

Dr. Peter Breggin, an Ithaca, N.Y., psychiatrist and author of Medication Madness: The Role of Psychiatric Drugs in Cases of Violence, Suicide and Crime (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009), said the addiction of soldiers in warrior transition units might have started with the drugs they were given while deployed.

Breggin said individuals given multiple addictive drugs during treatment sometimes seek illegal drugs to self-medicate in response to the adverse effects of the prescribed drugs.

Breggin said besides the narcotic abuse that the Army IG reported, there's a "strong likelihood that many [soldiers] are addicted to the benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Klonopin that are being given to them. These are Schedule IV narcotics, with high addiction potential. Worse, a very large percentage, while not technically addicted will be unable to come off antidepressants, mood stabilizers and antipsychotic drugs because of the severe withdrawal effects," Breggin said.

The Army IG report on prescription drug abuse dovetails with a series of reports prepared last April by the former top Pentagon official responsible for overseeing the warrior transition units, Noel Koch. Koch was fired by Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel last April shortly after the WTU reports were completed.

A report Koch wrote following a visit to the WTU at Irwin Army Community Hospital at Fort Riley, Kan., available on the Defense Department's Freedom of Information Act website, said some soldiers in that unit used PTSD and TBI claims to abuse drugs, alcohol, family members and "be general bad actors." Chaplains at a symposium in San Antonio, Texas, in January 2010 reported that soldiers in WTUs turn to drugs and alcohol to escape their problems.

While the Army set up WTUs to provide quality care for soldiers wounded in combat, the summary report of Koch's trips to WTUs around the country made it clear they have become a "dumping ground" for soldiers who have never seen combat.

That summary said local commanders send soldiers they view as "undesireables" to the WTUs where they "game . . . the system" by staying there for hundreds of days, frustrating motivated combat-wounded soldier who want to get better and return to duty, the report said.

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