Friday, October 12, 2012


In a woefully misleading story posted on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website, the department touts its allegedly successful monitoring of prescription medications given to veterans. 

The self-congratulatory piece describes VA pharmacists as people who “know medications, how they work, and their effects on veteran patients," and suggests that VA has “adapted to the increased role medications play" and that its pharmacists work "closely with physicians, nurses, and other health care providers to prescribe, monitor, and optimize veteran patients’ drug therapy while reducing medication risks."

Really? Reducing risks? In light of the overwhelming evidence that the increase in prescription drug use among our troops and young veterans has been nothing short of catastrophic, this "feel-good" story about the way in which VA handles prescription medicine is absurd. 

The "increased role medications play" in the lives of our troops and veterans is an understatement. Psychiatric drugs, specifically (antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, etc), are now being given out like candy by both military and VA doctors. And largely as a result, many reports have shown, suicides have skyrocketed.

VA seems to want to ignore this problem, which has been going on now for nearly a decade. I've been writing about the potential dangers of prescribing psyche meds to our troops and veterans since the early days of the war in Iraq.

In 2006, longtime military writer Rick Rogers wrote a piece for the San Diego Union-Tribune (now U-T San Diego) that raised the issue of psychiatric drugs in the military. In the story, Rogers reported that troops with serious mental health issues were being sent back into combat.

The Hartford Courant subsequently reported that the U.S. military was sending troops with serious psychological problems into Iraq and keeping soldiers in combat "even after superiors have been alerted to suicide warnings and other signs of mental illness. Once at war, some unstable troops are kept on the front lines while on potent antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, with little or no counseling or medical monitoring. And some troops who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq are being sent back to the war zone, increasing the risk to their mental health."

The Courant story noted that service members who committed suicide in 2004 and 2005 were kept on duty "despite clear signs of mental distress, sometimes after being prescribed antidepressants with little or no mental health counseling or monitoring." 

In 2009, Time reported that "for the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The medicines are intended not only to help troops keep their cool but also to enable the already strapped Army to preserve its most precious resource: soldiers on the front lines."
The Army Times reported in 2010 that the use of psychiatric medications among 18 to 34-year-olds (both troops and their spouses) soared by 42 percent between 2005 and 2009. 

And The New York Times reported in 2011 that "after a decade of treating thousands of wounded troops, the military’s medical system is awash in prescription drugs - and the results have sometimes been deadly."

In a PBS Frontline documentary The Wounded Platoon, Army psychiatrist Col. George Brandt said, "What I use medications for is to treat very specific side effects. I don’t want somebody in a helpless mode in a combat environment. I want to make sure I don’t have someone with suicidal thoughts where everyone is armed."

Unbelievable. Did the clueless Col. Brandt realize he was throwing throwing gasoline on a fire? Does Brandt know or care that prescribing these dangerous and sometimes addicting drugs has caused a tragic increase in suicide among our troops and veterans?

The Austin American Statesman just ran a remarkable investigative series, "Uncounted Casualties," which shows a strong correlation between the mixing of these drugs prescribed by VA and early death among veterans in Texas. 

The Statesman obtained autopsy results, toxicology reports, inquests and accident reports from more than 50 agencies throughout the state to analyze the causes of death for 266 Texas veterans who served in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and were receiving VA care when they died. 

The series reveals that a disturbingly high percentage of these men and women died from prescription drug overdoses, toxic drug combinations, suicide and single-vehicle crashes. 

Granted, in some cases these drugs provide relief. But they're clearly causing more harm than good.

In the wake of so many devastating reports about the real toll prescription psychiatric drugs are taking on veterans, VA's cheery report that its pharmacists really know how drugs work and that veterans are getting "the most benefit from their medications" is just unconscionable.


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