I think every military person or spouse I’ve ever spoken with in my life has said the same thing about military health care – it is worse than Medicare.
I have absolutely nothing against the doctors who treat our service members and their families, in fact, I give them my highest respect. The problem isn’t the doctors, it is the fact that they are overburdened with patients to treat in addition to the fact that most of our soldiers would rather pop a pill than admit they are in need of serious medical care (read my post about men seeking medical care less often than women and you’ll understand this ‘invincible’ persona).
So what do you do when access to care is limited and you are faced with a soldier that would rather be a ‘tough guy’ than hold still for blood work? You prescribe. The physicians take away the pain with medications as it is the most humane thing to do given their options. And anti-depressants? Psychologists aren’t always available, though I know TriCare has a fantastic program using Video Chat to help get soldiers the psychological care they need. But it takes time to get an appointment, and medications are prescribed until adequate treatment becomes available. The result, though, is that many of our service members “are taking prescription drugs that the Federal Aviation Administration considers too dangerous for commercial pilots.” and yet they carry on because they must.
Marine Corporal Michael Cataldi woke as he heard the truck rumble past.
He opened his eyes, but saw nothing. It was the middle of the night, and he was facedown in the sands of western Iraq. His loaded M16 was pinned beneath him.
Cataldi had no idea how he’d gotten to where he now lay, some 200 meters from the dilapidated building where his buddies slept. But he suspected what had caused this nightmare: His Klonopin prescription had run out.
His ordeal was not all that remarkable for a person on that anti-anxiety medication. In the lengthy labeling that accompanies each prescription, Klonopin users are warned against abruptly stopping the medicine, since doing so can cause psychosis, hallucinations, and other symptoms. What makes Cataldi’s story extraordinary is that he was a U. S. Marine at war, and that the drug’s adverse effects endangered lives — his own, his fellow Marines’, and the lives of any civilians unfortunate enough to cross his path.
“It put everyone within rifle distance at risk,” he says.
In deploying an all-volunteer army to fight two ongoing wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has increasingly relied on prescription drugs to keep its warriors on the front lines. In recent years, the number of military prescriptions for antidepressants, sleeping pills, and painkillers has risen as soldiers come home with battered bodies and troubled minds. And many of those service members are then sent back to war theaters in distant lands with bottles of medication to fortify them.
According to data from a U. S. Army mental-health survey released last year, about 12 percent of soldiers in Iraq and 15 percent of those in Afghanistan reported taking antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or sleeping pills. Prescriptions for painkillers have also skyrocketed. Data from the Department of Defense last fall showed that as of September 2007, prescriptions for narcotics for active-duty troops had risen to almost 50,000 a month, compared with about 33,000 a month in October 2003, not long after the Iraq war began.
In other words, thousands of American fighters armed with the latest killing technology are taking prescription drugs that the Federal Aviation Administration considers too dangerous for commercial pilots.
Military officials say they believe many medications can be safely used on the battlefield. They say they have policies to ensure that drugs they consider inappropriate for soldiers on the front lines are rarely used. And they say they are not using the drugs in order to send unstable warriors back to war.
Yet the experience of soldiers and Marines like Cataldi show the dangers of drugging our warriors. It also worries some physicians and veterans’ advocates. “There are risks in putting people back to battle with medicines in their bodies,” says psychiatrist Judith Broder, M. D., founder of the Soldiers Project, a group that helps service members suffering from mental illness.
Prescription drugs can help patients, Dr. Broder says, but they can also cause drowsiness and impair judgment. Those side effects can be dealt with by patients who are at home, she says, but they can put active-duty soldiers in great danger. She worries that some soldiers are being medicated and then sent back to fight before they’re ready.
“The military is under great pressure to have enough people ready for combat,” she says. “I don’t think they’re as cautious as they would be if they weren’t under this kind of pressure.”
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