Special operations sources did not describe a secret culture of commando junkies but of operators who safely "self-medicate" to keep fighting at peak performance. Few in the U.S. military or government ever envisioned fighting through 13 years of combat deployments. All that time "downrange" plus training takes a physical toll.
An ABC News reporter visiting a large Special Operations camp in Afghanistan in 2010 was given Pakistani-labeled Xanax by an operator to help adjust to jet lag. Some operators use Ambien to sleep when they need to get rest and prescription amphetamines nicknamed "go pills" to stay awake and alert during combat operations.
"Downrange it's easy to get pills and safer than carrying around a bottle of booze," one special operations soldier said. "Our medic gave me two go pills before the longest patrol of my life. I was awake and going for over 48 hours."
When asked if he’d had experience with sleeping pills or stimulants while on deployment, another former Army special operations member said, “Yes, a lot.”
The former soldier said he and his team often worked on “reverse cycles,” meaning they were sleeping during the day and out on missions at night. Often Ambien was the only way to get rest during the daytime, though adrenaline always kept him up enough that stimulants weren’t necessary later. “Ninety-nine percent of the people taking it were responsible with it,” he said.
"I was issued Ambien on long flights. It was so you could hit the ground running," retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Jim Gavrilis, who served in Iraq, told ABC News. "Whether it's Red Bull or coffee to stay awake or Ambien, it's all in a spectrum of performance-enhancers so you can do the job and the mission."
There are multiple mentions of Ambien in “No Easy Day,” the book by a former member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six, writing under the name Mark Owen, that detailed the mission to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Owen writes that early one morning, just days before the historic mission, Owen “popped two Ambien.”
“No one was getting any rest without sleeping pills. No matter how much we tried to make this mission like the others, it wasn’t,” he writes.
Old combat wounds often cause pain, but so do other injuries sustained by training and extreme physical activity while hauling heavy kit -- a weapon in hand and ammo, radios, trauma kit, GPS unit and grenades on load-bearing vests in the front chest area for easy access. That weight distribution in front can bring back and neck injuries and painful knee problems, operators say.
"I self-medicated," Gant admitted in an ABC News interview. “I was in a lot of pain for a lot of different reasons, all of them combat-related. And I had to get through that. And [I] never said that I didn't do that. I did.”
As far as drinking in a war zone, another Special Forces commander, who knew Gant in Afghanistan, said it “absolutely” happens. “But people are held accountable.”
In 2010, two Green Berets and an Afghan interpreter -- who, according to a source who served with them, were smoking hashish though blood tests were lost and it was never proven -- went on a joyride in Khost and got into a shootout with Afghan security forces at a checkpoint. The interpreter was killed and the Green Berets were kicked out of the Army, as ABC News reported earlier this month.