by MATTHEW GAULT
The number one cause of hospital visits for American service members is mental health, noted a recent issue of Medical Surveillance Monthly Report — a publication that tracks health and wellness trends in U.S. troops.
The number one way the Department of Veterans Affairs deals with that problem is by prescribing the soldiers drugs — typically anti-anxiety pills, antidepressants or a mix of the two.
Journalists, families and soldiers now blame those potent cocktails for many of the returning soldiers’ woes — everything from suicide to homicide.
The medicating often starts on the battlefield. In 2012, The New York Times reported that stimulant prescriptions for drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall had jumped by 1,000 percent in the five years before 2012.
It’s a serious problem, but it’s one that’s as old as the warfare itself. “Why Are We Drugging Our Soldiers?” The New York Times asked in a headline. The answers are both obvious and many. Soldiers take drugs to make them more effective in combat and to numb the physical and psychic pain war inflicts.
Ritalin-addicted veterans, Percocet-popping wounded soldiers and antidepressant cocktail post-traumatic stress cases are just the newest form of a problem that’s as old as war itself.
One of the earliest instances of a soldiers on drugs is so old that it’s recorded in story and legend.
Berserkers were fierce Norse warriors described in Viking songs and poems. The warriors supposedly wore wolf pelts and entered into a hypnotic trance that granted them superhuman strength on the battlefield.
We don’t know if these legendary warriors ever actually existed, as most of the evidence comes from old Norse songs and stories. But that hasn’t stopped historians and scientists from trying to pin down exactly what made them so powerful in war. Drugs is the popular answer.
Most Viking historians suggest the warriors downed massive amounts of alcohol to work themselves into a frenzy before battle, but one psychologist has claimed the berserkers used hallucinogenic mushrooms to induce the frenzied state.
To anyone who’s taken mushrooms for a good time, the idea of hallucinogens aiding a soldier in wartime sounds ridiculous. But the mythological Viking warriors weren’t the only soldiers to do so — at least in the popular legends.
In the 12th century, the Persian warlord Hassan I Sabbah controlled a castle on Mount Alamut in the north of Iran. Sabbah used his castle as base of operations to fight the Turkish empire then in control of much of Iran.
Sabbah also founded and trained an order of holy warriors — the Hashashin. Popular legend says he fed marijuana to his warriors to help them in battle, but we don’t know this for sure, and Hassan had a lot of enemies. The story might’ve all been made up by Marco Polo.
Britain’s 19th-century war against the Zulu Kingdom was short and bloody. Though it lasted less than a year, the conflict marked the beginning of the end of the British empire. The ferocity of the Zulu warriors surprised the British troops, who suffered a major defeat at Isandlwana.
British soldiers who survived the famous battle described opponents taken over by a frenzy from eating dagga — marijuana — in combination with another stimulant or hallucinogen.
By the 20th century, people had distilled, refined and cultivated popular drugs into more potent forms. Opium became morphine became heroin. Farmers had pulped cocoa leaves and turned them into cocaine. Chemists concocted strange new stimulants to keep workers awake and soldiers marching.
Such stimulants would help shape soldiers’ experiences during the world wars. In the trenches of World War I, soldiers injected strange new cocktails to keep focused, stay awake and stave off hunger.
The drugs had names like nevrosthenine, which was a combination of magnesium and potassium.
During World War II, both the Allied and Axis powers fed massive amounts of amphetamine to their soldiers. More speed for troops meant fewer food rations and increased capability and focus. The Nazis even experimented with a so called “wonder drug” in an attempt to make super soldiers.
DI-X was a pill that combined cocaine, methamphetamine and an opiate pain killer in one nifty little pill. The German chemists tested the pill in concentration camps, where they fed prisoners the drug and forced them to march while carrying more than 40 pounds on their back.
The exhausted prisoners collapsed after 55 miles. The super soldier drug was a success, but the war ended before the German soldiers could use them.
The American military took to uppers, and the Pentagon kept its soldiers supplied with “go pills” — typically dexedrine — throughout the ’50s. The airmen of Strategic Air Command chewed speed as they crisscrossed America in nuclear armed bombers, ready at a moment’s notice to attack the Soviet Union.
Yes, America had speed-addled pilots in the air carrying nuclear bombs. They may no longer be carrying nukes, but U.S. pilots are still chewing speed and flying through the air. In 2003, two Air National Guard pilots flying F-16s accidentally bombed Canadian troops over Afghanistan, killing four and wounding eight.
The airmen said their commanders had forced them to take dexedrine before taking to the air, and that the speed clouded their judgment. The Air Force found one of the pilots guilty of dereliction of duty.
During the World Wars, soldiers took drugs to dull physical pain and ready themselves to fight. During the Vietnam war, soldiers took drugs to escape.
The drafted troops of Vietnam drank large amounts of alcohol, smoked incredible amounts of pot and shot heroin. Forty-five percent of American soldiers in the war used some kind of illegal drug, according to Defense Department statistics. More than 30 percent tried heroin.
Drug abuse was such a serious problem among the military at the time that the Pentagon is still studying it today.
The draft, high casualty rates, low morale and lack of a clear mission all contributed to the increased drug use by American troops in Vietnam. Many of them did not want to be there and knew they might die at any moment for a cause they didn’t believe in.
The soldiers who returned from Vietnam brought addictions with them, and many of them remained addicted. But, in a strange turn of events, Vietnam veterans — as a group — recovered from addiction at rates that shocked researchers.
A 1993 study by the Pentagon revealed that only five percent of soldiers addicted to drugs in Vietnam continued to use drugs after the war. Most of that five percent were soldiers who were already using drugs before they entered the service.
The study concluded that troops used drugs such as heroin to escape the nightmare of the war, and that soldiers who returned home to stable families largely recovered from their addictions.
Soldiers always take drugs on the battlefield. and governments have experimented on its troops to see what psychoactive substances best enhance the soldier or help them recover.
During the Civil War, troops used morphine, uppers dominated World War II — and the lost boys of Vietnam shot heroin.
The soldiers of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq take prescription pills to numb both psychic and physical pain. What’s different now, is that the people in charge of taking care of them keep them drugged long after they leave the service.