Bucking the Trend: Why Soldiers Are Hooked On Drugs and How We Can Stop It

By Michael Orion Powell


There are some fundamental truths we need to face about the American military.  Movies from Saving Private Ryan to Captain America are still very popular and posit the idea of our military as a place in which the best, brightest, and bravest volunteer to put their lives on the line for the greater good.  Perhaps there is an element of that, certainly, but the reality of the military seems much more cynical.

A Jobs Program

The American military is a jobs program, and a colossal one at that.  Recruitment posters are much different now than they were during World War II (which was only seventy years ago – fairly recently in a historical perspective).  Modern posters and advertisements now promise five-figure incomes pushing towards six, job skills, and resume enhancement – a pitch that sounds more like an alternative higher education of sorts, as opposed to getting physically involved in some of the world’s most hostile environments.

The Pentagon reportedly spends a billion dollars on recruitment alone, though this doesn’t always equal results.  Enlistment is low.  The pronouncement that the military markets itself as a jobs program with promises of ‘career enhancement’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is exploiting disadvantaged people – there are studies that show the military is largely reflective of the larger population in that regard[1] – but, like higher education, the military reflects a jobs program promising social and economic advantages as opposed to a service dedicated solely to defense of the country.

Like any establishment promising career advancement, money is strongly involved.

The Quick Fix

Whenever people are sent in to combat zones, even if the casualties are fairly low (and Afghanistan and Iraq are fairly low compared to World War II and Vietnam), post-traumatic stress disorder is almost guaranteed.  Robert Bales, the man who killed a dozen Afghans and burned their bodies, was reported to have suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury – but that didn’t stop him from serving multiple tours of duty.

A recent Russia Today expose[2] illustrated that the White House has called prescription drug abuse and overdose an “epidemic” among the general population.  Despite this, very dangerous antidepressants and painkillers are given out liberally and “legally” to the most vulnerable in our population.  The report followed a soldier, Nick Stefanovic, who was discharged honorably in 2006.  To treat PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs often prescribes drugs like Oxycontin (the same drug Rush Limbaugh infamously abused). In an interview, Stefanovic said that Oxycontin “cures the sort of mental health disorders that you come back from combat with immediately (emphasis his).”

Stefanovic was eventually arrested for writing fraudulent checks to buy the drug illegally. The expose also added that the level of prescriptions for the drug written by the VA had gone up by 287% from 1999 to 2012, possibly correlating with the so-called “War on Terror,” which started in late 2001.  It added that 50,000 veterans had been treated for issues relating to opiate use in 2012 alone.

What Can Be Done

I have written previously about the prescription drug epidemic.  It’s a personal matter for me.  I went through hell on earth thanks to antidepressants and survived miraculously and with the help of others.  When I first wrote about it, I was under the assumption that progressives would be sympathetic – after all, it was progressive documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, who produced the film Sicko.  The film was littered with examples of people who had been treated poorly by the health care industry.  After seeing the movie, I thought, “Why wouldn’t people whose lives had been put on the edge by Vicodin or Effexor not garner the same sympathy?”

Well, I was wrong.  I gave up writing about it for a while because it seemed as if people didn’t actually understand what I was trying to say.  I got accused of wanting to start “another war on drugs” – a poor analogy due to the fact that the real “war on drugs” was a failure because it criminalized drug use and put users in to the prison system.  With the Reagan-Rockefeller version, it wasn’t so much about the drugs themselves but the barbaric treatment of people who have been caught in the hell of addiction and, in turn, were criminalized and institutionalized for life… for a victimless crime nonetheless.

In giving dangerous painkillers and antidepressants (unlike marijuana, which still remains illegal in most of the United States despite never causing overdose deaths – in contrast, painkillers and antidepressants are documented to be extremely dangerous and have killed many people) to the most vulnerable, we are trivializing their very lives.  PTSD is a chronic condition. Even if a drug like Oxycontin can turn the symptoms of the disorder off, it’s ultimately nothing more than a smokescreen – a superficial band-aid placed on a systemic wound.  Not to mention, withdrawal could quickly result in a horrible return of the PTSD symptoms and the person affected finding no avenues of battling it due to being directed to pharmaceutical alternatives as opposed to occupational therapy or talk therapy.

Legislation is the alternative. Something should be done in regards to psychiatric treatment for veterans.  If a veteran feels that the treatment was insufficient or made matters worse, there should be an oversight committee that would, at least, listen to their concerns.

There should also be an increase in alternative means of rehabilitation.  PTSD is a long term problem – the pain caused by war experiences will only go away temporarily with the use mind-altering drugs.  It takes something more significant, like someone to honestly talk to, to really recover.



[1] Pereltsvaig, Asya. “Who Serves in the U.S. Military? Mapping Enlisted Troops and Officers | GeoCurrents.” GeoCurrents, 3 July 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

[2] “Veterans Dropping Dead From Prescription Drug Addictions.” Russia Today, 09 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.


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