Jennifer Senior’s heart-rending portrayal of the current state of our armed forces and the keystone role of prescription drugs therein is particularly stunning for its no-holds-barred depiction of the brave men and women who sacrifice for our country—both in theater abroad and while reintegrating and readapting to the home front—and, physical injuries aside, their extensive mental illnesses far surpassing the spectrum of post traumatic stress disorders as witnessed in wars heretofore. Her New York Magazine piece “The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War” chronicles how repeated deployments of our all-volunteer corps and the current lull in operational tempo have manifested in escalating suicide rates—especially when their Army-advocated prescription-drug use intensifies upon return stateside as the off-duty soliders come face-to-face with depression, noncombatant boredom, suppressed pain manifesting itself and residual insomnia spawned by their perpetual hypervigilance whilst in combat; viz., one-third of all 2009 active-duty suicides were associated with prescription drug use. I was appalled to learn that accidental death on our homeland (such as drug overdose or drinking and driving) triggers nearly as many Army deaths as the number of servicemen and women killed in combat overseas. The Army’s inexcusable routine of labeling returning troops as exhibiting a mere “personality disorder” in lieu of accurately reporting their post-traumatic stress and other afflictions is entirely reprehensible, especially since doing so in turn renounces any chance of their eligibility for disability.
Even in April 2004—widely accepted as our country’s most trying hour throughout the Global War on Terror (in consideration of the scale of casualties and lack of any end in sight at the time)—our troop morale was exponentially higher than the beginning of 2011. Nowadays, with casualties declining, productive headway made with respect to our stability in combat zones and the elimination of many global terrorist leaders at the highest echelon (e.g., Osama bin Laden)—Jennifer Senior maintains that our army is “falling apart”: Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars encompass an inordinate percentage of the American unemployed; the Army’s divorce rate (historically recognized for its low rates compared to its civilian conjugal counterparts) has surpassed that of nonmilitary citizens—and servicemen and women deployed on multiple tours have even eclipsed those dismally high divorce rates. Defense Department spending on Ambien (sleep aids), Seroquel (antipsychotics), and amphetamines has doubled since 2007 and their disbursement of Topamax (anti-convulsants often prescribed for migraines) has quadrupled.
According to the Army’s research, alcohol abuse, disciplinary infractions and criminal activities are increasing with active-duty service members. Just as in Vietnam, where the enemy deceptively blended in with civilians, everyone and everything is a potential threat; however this war is fought as often in the backcountry deserts as it is in populous cities—whereby soldiers are never afforded the opportunity of their predecessors to mentally decompress—bearing in mind that “there’s no front in this war, and no rear either…” (NY Mag p. 4). Whereas Vietnam soldiers used dope and Jimi Hendrix to both relax and pump up for battle, today’s military personnel’s consumption of drugs is a DOD-approved modus operandi—poles apart from Nam-era’s countercultural attitude toward drugs. Case in point: In this day and age, larger-battalion aide stations in Iraq and Afghanistan are jam-packed with Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor and Zoloft (to ward off depression); Valium (to unclench muscles, combat stress and induce sleep); Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril and Xanax (to fight anxiety); Adderall and Ritalin (for “ADD”); Haldol and Risperdal (to manage psychosis); and Seroquel—at subtherepeutic doses—along with Lunesta and Ambien (for sleep). Upon deployment, servicemen and servicewomen swiftly settle into a ceaseless cycle of Red Bulls and Rip Its (amply provided by the truckload at any base chow hall) for colossal caffeine boosts just before missions, only to necessitate a regimen of sleep meds and depressants to power down in due course.
It goes without saying that the Army places tremendous value on mission focus; army doctors are inasmuch generally disinclined to prescribe any medications that could jeopardize concentration. It is only upon a soldier’s homecoming that the full toll of the war’s horrors—compounded with their newfound addictions and dependencies on (often mandated) prescription medications—fully manifest themselves, all whilst they attempt to reintegrate into civilian society. This very phenomenon has given rise to Army residential facilities with the specific intent to treat alcohol and substance abuse, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, depression, pain management, and the reckless poly-drug prescription problem under one roof—a half-way house of sorts, wherein at-risk soldiers can rehabilitate and readjust to America and its dearth of the strange new agonies experienced abroad: dust particles cloaked with unrecognizable toxins, 90-pound packs lugged at unfathomable altitudes, incessant pressure waves and blasts, beyond erratic sleep cycles, and the round-the-clock stressors and traumas of combat life in the Middle East.
The welfare of our soldiers in this wartime climate—marked by scores of deployments (and the profuse prescription medications allocated to cope with such a taxing reality)—truly struck a chord on my psyche. Admittedly prior to reading this New York Magazine article, I had not fully grasped the complexities of our servicemen and women’s sacrifices and the central role that psychoactive drugs (and their sundry side effects and cumulative tolerance issues) play in contemporary Army life. I can only imagine the added contemporary pressures faced in an age of Skype and Facebook, whereby service members must not only contend with their own immediate combat-zone unease, overmedication and sympathetic nervous system overactivation: for the first time in history, they also retain an up-to-the-minute awareness of the strain on their families, along with incoming imagery of loved ones subsisting in normal (as possible) lives—often jobless, struggling to raise children in their absence—and even at times devastatingly “Facebook tagged” at bars and in social climates. The psychological impact of the Digital Age has only augmented the anxiety in their lives, as the military must face life-and-death situations in defense of our country with the full cognizance of such personal stressors as divorce, death, moving, and financial tumult on the home front; pressures that, if they survive the battlefront, they may be forced to tackle whilst also battling their own newfound drug issues under the Army’s supervision.