High at the Mountain Post

Editor's Note from Brian Ross: In the third year of a joint project with the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation, six leading graduate school journalism students were again selected to spend the summer working with the ABC News investigative unit.

This year's project involved an examination of whether, as happened in the wake of the Vietnam War, Iraqi war veterans were turning to drugs as a result of the trauma and pain of war.

The U.S. military maintains the percentage of soldiers abusing drugs is extremely small and has not increased as a result of Iraq.

The students' assignment was to get the unofficial side of the story from soldiers, young men of their own generation.

Today's report is the first in a series of five reports.

They were prepared for war. They were prepared to die for their country. But Fort Carson soldiers say they weren't prepared to come home and fight a different battle -- addiction to illegal drugs.

Many of this country's bravest men and women who volunteered to defend America in a time of war have come home wounded -- physically and mentally -- and are turning to illicit drugs as they adjust to normal life, according to soldiers, health experts and advocates.

"Lots of soldiers coming back from Iraq have been using drugs," said Spc. William Swenson, who was deployed to Iraq from Fort Carson. "Right when we got back, there were people using cocaine in the barracks; there were people smoking marijuana at strip clubs; one guy started shooting up," he said.

Fort Carson, just outside Colorado Springs, is home to 17,500 active duty personnel. Four thousand eight hundred service members are currently deployed in the "sand box," as soldiers call Iraq and Afghanistan.

ABC News spoke to more than a dozen soldiers who described widespread abuse of illegal drugs at Fort Carson by service members back from the war.

Spc. Alan Hartmann was a gunner on a Chinook helicopter flying missions from Kuwait into Iraq in 2003. He described the high of flying and the feeling that "nothing can touch you" as well as the terror of being shot at.

After sustaining a neck injury in Iraq, Hartmann returned to Fort Carson. Having regularly ferried the bodies of American soldiers killed in combat -- with the helicopter exhaust blowing warm air and the smell of death through the craft -- Hartmann said he had trouble sleeping. The nightmares were too bad, he said.

To help Hartmann deal with his physical and emotional pain, Army doctors prescribed painkillers and anti-depressants -- two typewritten pages' worth since he's been back. But Hartmann said he didn't like how the drugs made him feel, and instead he turned to self-medication with methamphetamines.

"The nightmares were killing me from being over there. The pain was so bad I didn't want to deal with it. Well, amphetamines is a real quick way to get rid of it," Hartmann said. "I was snorting it, and I was smoking it, and then I was hot railing it, and then I got to the point where I was actually injecting it in my arms," said Hartmann, who eventually checked himself into rehab and is now clean.

"[Soldiers are] coming back, drinking, fighting, putting $1,000 tabs down at a bar and drinking four to five hours, getting to the point where you don't give a crap about anything anymore [or] anybody, don't care if you live or die…the point where you do drugs," Hartmann said. "[Drugs] have been in Fort Carson like crazy."

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