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Daily Times, June 10, 2008

Happy pills helping US fight war on terror

The increase in the use of medication among US troops suggests the heavy mental and psychological price being paid by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among modern high-tech weapons aiding American combat troops to grapple with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, antidepressants and sleeping pills have become the lifeline for a significant yet a growing number of United States Army soldiers.

According to an article published in Time magazine on Monday, citing the Army’s fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report based on an anonymous survey taken last fall, about 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq and 17 percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them keep fighting. Escalating violence in Afghanistan and isolated missions have driven troops to rely more on medication there than in Iraq, the article quoted military officials as saying.

Matthis Chiroux, US soldier refuses to go to Iraq
Matthis Chiroux: "This occupation is unconstitutional and illegal and I hereby lawfully refuse to participate as I will surely be a party to war crimes." (watch video)

The report says: “Given the traditional stigma associated with soldiers seeking mental help, the survey, released in March, probably underestimates antidepressant use. But if the Army numbers reflect those of other services -- the Army has by far the most troops deployed to the war zones -- about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were on such medications last fall. The Army estimates that authorised drug use splits roughly fifty-fifty between troops taking antidepressants -- largely the class of drugs that includes Prozac and Zoloft -- and those taking prescription sleeping pills like Ambien.”

The increase in the use of medication among US troops suggests the heavy mental and psychological price being paid by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the report, Pentagon surveys show that while all soldiers deployed to a war zone will feel stressed, 70 percent will manage to bounce back to normalcy. But about 20 percent will suffer from what the military calls "temporary stress injuries," and 10 percent will be afflicted with "stress illnesses", it says. Such ailments, according to briefings commanders get before deploying, begin with mild anxiety and irritability, difficulty sleeping, and growing feelings of apathy and pessimism. As the condition worsens, the feelings last longer and can come to include panic, rage, uncontrolled shaking and temporary paralysis. The symptoms often continue back home, playing a key role in broken marriages, suicides and psychiatric breakdowns, the report says, adding that the mental trauma has become so common that the Pentagon may expand the list of "qualifying wounds" for a Purple Heart -- historically limited to those physically injured on the battlefield -- to include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It quoted US Defence Secretary Robert Gates as saying on May 2 that it's "clearly something" that needs to be considered, and that the Pentagon was weighing the change.

Some 300,000 of the 1.6 million US soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from the psychological traumas of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or both, an independent study showed last month.
AFP, May 16, 2008

Using drugs to cope with battlefield traumas is not discussed much outside the Army, but inside the service it has been the subject of debate for years, the report says. "No magic pill can erase the image of a best friend's shattered body or assuage the guilt from having traded duty with him that day," it quoted Combat Stress Injury, a 2006 medical book edited by Charles Figley and William Nash that details how troops can be helped by such drugs. "Medication can, however, alleviate some debilitating and nearly intolerable symptoms of combat and operational stress injuries" and "help restore personnel to full functioning capacity."

Which means that any drug that keeps a soldier deployed and fighting also saves money on training and deploying replacements, according to the report, which also gives a downside: the number of soldiers requiring long-term mental-health services soars with repeated deployments and lengthy combat tours.

If troops do not get sufficient time away from combat -- both while in theatre and during the "dwell time" at home before they go back to war -- it's possible that antidepressants and sleeping aids will be used to stretch an already taut force even tighter, the report said, while quoting a former Pentagon personnel chief as saying, "This is what happens when you try to fight a long war with an army that wasn't designed for a long war."

Regarding the side effects of some mental-health medications, the article says that last year the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged the makers of antidepressants to expand a 2004 "black box" warning that the drugs may increase the risk of suicide in children and adolescents. According to the report, there have been 164 Army suicides in Afghanistan and Iraq from the wars' start through 2007, and the annual rate there is now double the service's 2001 rate.

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