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Nation's debt to soldiers is unpaid

Last modified: 5/23/2010 12:00:00 AM
This nation is failing its veterans. That failure can be seen in two sets of statistics. The first comes from a powerful PBS Frontline documentary on the fate of the 42 men of the 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry that fought in Iraq. The show aired last week. Most of the soldiers in The Wounded Platoon, whether they admitted it or not, suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. Since returning, three have been convicted of murder or attempted murder. One was jailed for assaulting his wife. One convicted of drunk driving, and one attempted suicide.

The second statistic is even sadder. According to an article in the Army Times, an average of 18 veterans commit suicide every day - five per day do so while under Veterans Administration care.

Countless veterans are unemployed, behind bars or homeless. Some refuse to seek help. Others seek help and are denied. Others receive inefficient or inadequate treatment. The VA's suicide hotline receives 10,000 calls per month.

Frontline reporter Christopher Buchanan interviewed all but a few of the platoon's members. They described their problems with alcohol, drugs, PTSD and reintegration into society. Some told him they witnessed or committed war crimes, including the killing of unarmed civilians. In descriptions verified to one extent or another by their commanders, they explained how the Army dealt with the psychological trauma caused by combat and seeing friends, enemies and innocents killed: Soldiers were given sleep medications like Ambien and psychotropic drugs like Prozac and Zoloft for anxiety and depression. One in six members of the military are using some psychotropic drug, according to the Military Times.

"Everybody was on Ambien, everybody. It was hard to find somebody that wasn't taking Ambien," says the 3rd Platoon's medic, Ryan "Doc" Krebbs. "It helps you sleep, and it also f---s you up. It gets you pretty high," Krebbs told Buchanan.

Psychotropic drugs were not given to soldiers in combat before the Iraq war, but by 2003 their use became commonplace. Were soldiers on the frontlines given drugs to relieve the psychological pain caused by their experiences or to keep them deployed and the combat ranks full? The documentary lets the viewer decide. By keeping soldiers on the frontlines to experience more horror and suffering, is the use of psychiatric drugs in combat making their illnesses worse? No doubt.

Repeated deployments increase the likelihood that a soldier will suffer from PTSD and the severity of the disorder. A volunteer Army and the high cost of training soldiers has made repeated combat deployments common. Some 40 percent of the military's members have served two or more stints in Iraq or Afghanistan; some have spent three or four years in combat. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, fought against murky enemies of all ages and genders, are taking a huge toll in the mental health of America's soldiers.

The military has continued to improve its ability to care for the psychological wounds of soldiers, but its capacity to treat soldiers and veterans remains sorely inadequate. The use of powerful psychotropic drugs by people armed and at war needs far more debate than it's gotten.

The Frontline documentary reveals a military mental health system that's "overwhelmed with soldiers suffering psychological injuries." Next Sunday is Memorial Day. It should be a day to think about not just those who have died serving their country but about whether the nation is doing enough to repair the wounds of war hundreds of thousands of soldiers must live with.


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