Instead of providing proper counseling and care for Iraq war veterans suffering from physical and psychological pain, too often the U.S. military is trying to medicate the problem away, according to drug counselors and therapists.
Andrew Pogany, who works with service members nationwide as an investigator with the veterans advocacy group Veterans for America, said overmedicating veterans is a common problem.
"Pretty much every person in my caseload is medicated, heavily medicated," said Pogany. "There's potential for them to become addicted."
According to Pogany, a reliance on prescription drugs often leads veterans to reach for other coping mechanisms -- illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth.
Army Spc. Adam Reuter joined the military in October 2001, shortly after 9/11. After Reuter was injured in a Humvee accident in Iraq, he said an Army doctor literally gave him a grab bag of painkillers and muscle relaxers.
"They gave them to me in a Ziploc bag with no instructions," said Reuter. Reuter said he became addicted to the medication and was able to quit his habit simply because of lack of access now that he's out of the Army.
Gamal Awad, a former major in the Marine Corps, says Marine doctors in Iraq gave him an array of antidepressants and sleep medication so he could continue to function in the field.
Awad was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his heroic response efforts at the Pentagon on 9/11. Despite his diagnosis, he was deployed to Iraq where he said he was haunted by depression, nightmares and thoughts of suicide.
"I would go out on convoys with the purpose to die," said Awad. "I just wanted to be hit by an IED or get shot. When we'd get hit with mortar rounds or rockets, I wouldn't take cover."
Awad said he was given more than a dozen prescription drugs, including Xanax, Ambien, Prasozin, Zoloft and Paxil to treat his PTSD. Awad complained that for him these drugs are highly addictive, and he is frustrated by his reliance.
"I need to go take that pill," Awad said. "And I don't want to be dependent on something like that."
Awad has been discharged from the Marines on misconduct charges and said he now relies on medical marijuana prescribed by a civilian doctor to allow him to sleep at night.
"It's the one thing that, it's given me peace, some sort of sleep for more than three or four hours," said Awad.
Psychologists say talking through the issues is necessary to treat PTSD.
"Medication alone will not be enough," said Julie Mennon, a clinical psychologist with military patients. Mennon said patients should have treatment such as group therapy and individual psychotherapy. "There are individual tools we can use that have been very effective," said Mennon.
Another psychologist treating addictions in veterans, Donald Elverd of the Hazelden addiction treatment center, said medication is a band-aid, only to be used as a short-term rescue or in conjunction with therapy. He added that the longer a patient represses traumatic memories, the harder it is to treat PTSD.
"At some point these demons have to be met," Elverd said.