About Soldiers Say Drug Use Is An Increasing Problem In Iraq
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Soldiers Say Drug Use Is An Increasing Problem In Iraq info
December 3, 2006
Stress, repeated tours of duty, and the availability of illicit drugs, alcohol and medications contribute.
By Anne Usher, Cox News Service
WASHINGTON - It was a particularly intense firefight, recalled Ben Schrader, a former cavalry scout in Iraq.
"It lasted all day - bullets whizzing by your ear, seeing people with AKs," the 26-year-old from Denver said. He remembered firing his M-4 rifle at insurgents and watching them drop to the pavement. "It's something you have to live with every day."
In the few hours of rest between 20-hour patrols, he said, his comrades drowned out the combat stress with a variety of substances at their disposal: alcohol, hashish, pills.
"It got so bad that some people were drinking Listerine," Schrader said, adding that he had kept clean. He said others sniffed household products such as Dust-Off, the canned compressed air used to clean computers.
Drug use rising
TV footage of soldiers getting high became an oft-repeated image of the American experience in Vietnam. Drug use in Iraq is not described as being on such a large scale - nor is there the insubordination that marked many drafted soldiers in Vietnam.
But soldiers and veterans groups say drug use is an increasing problem in Iraq, where illicit drugs and alcohol are readily available and prescription medications are generously handed out by medics.
Reliable statistics on soldiers using banned substances are hard to come by. In Afghanistan, just 75 drug cases have been reported - half involving marijuana or hashish and half involving Valium - since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001, data from a Freedom of Information Act request show. The Pentagon has not answered a separate request for figures on the war in Iraq.
Military officials acknowledge that alcohol and drug abuse is a problem, as it is in American society.
"It's out there, without a doubt," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Wood, the senior enlisted man in Afghanistan.
Across all branches, the Pentagon said, 2.1 percent of all troops, or about 22,000, have tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, heroin or amphetamines, up slightly from 2005. The recorded rates are lower than among the U.S. civilian population.
For example, 1.8 percent of military personnel are reported to have used marijuana, compared with an estimated 16 percent of civilian American men ages 18 to 25. The comparison for cocaine use is 0.65 percent vs. 1.2 percent.
But veterans' support groups report that thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking treatment for substance abuse, and that repeated deployments are taking a toll.
Coping with stress
"Troops who were on a first deployment were following rules, but it seems to be that your second and third deployments over there you start doing things like this," said Ray Parrish, a counselor with Vietnam Veterans Against the War who has spoken with hundreds of Iraq vets.
The military's zero-tolerance policy means soldiers who abuse drugs or alcohol tend to do it in solitude.
"Guys try to lock themselves in a room or a port-a-potty, or they'll hide it in regular rolled cigarettes laced with opium," said former Army sniper Garett Reppenhagen, 31, who served in Iraq through May 2004 with the 263d Armored Battalion of the First Armored Division.
"It's more challenging to get high because there are more precautions that the military is taking - but, then again, soldiers will find a way if they want to self-medicate or get high," he said.
The Pentagon is reviewing its drug-testing regime "to see if a better deterrence program can be provided," said Lt. Col. Carl S. Ey, an Army spokesman. Drug use or distribution severely hurts readiness, he said, and "will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately."
But some experts say the drug problem remains obfuscated by a key motivation in any war: to keep the troops on duty.
If soldiers already have an addictive personality, Parrish said, it's especially easy for them to move from taking drugs in Iraq and Afghanistan to cope with traumatic experiences. When they come home, he and soldiers interviewed said, many are using street drugs and alcohol more heavily.
David Addlestone, codirector of National Veterans Legal Services, a nonprofit group assisting veterans with legal advice, said drug use was "a serious symbol of a morale problem" and potentially placed soldiers at grave risk.
At the peak of drug use near the end of the Vietnam War, he said, only 10 percent of soldiers were seeing combat, in contrast with the violence experienced by nearly all soldiers in Iraq. Soldiers in Vietnam also had in-country R&R in Saigon. He is more worried about the lingering effects on soldiers serving in Iraq, especially given the stress they are experiencing from mortars, roadside bombs and suicide bombers.
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