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.
Road to Addiction Can Start in Iraq
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.
Lack of Counseling Resources
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.
But Andrew Pogany said the reason why vets suffering from PTSD are not afforded better psychiatric care is clear -- a lack of resources on the part of the military.
"Do they have enough trained providers to provide individual care? The answer is no," he told ABC News.
And the military apparently agrees. Results from the DOD (Department of Defense) Task Force on Mental Health released in June 2007 find that "the military system does not have enough resources, funding or personnel to adequately support the psychological health of service members."
"Handing somebody a bag of medication and then seeing them once a month for a half-hour appointment, that's not adequate," said Pogany.
Daily Dose to Deal With Pain of War
Iraq veteran Michael Lemke, who was a certified addiction counselor in Colorado, said the soldiers he met were often given a bewildering array of prescription pills.
"On their desk or in their locker, it looked like a pharmacy. I saw soldiers who were prescribed 25 or 30 medications," said Lemke.
Spc. Alan Hartmann, a helicopter gunner in Iraq, was also prescribed a laundry list of antidepressants and painkillers to treat his emotional and physical pain after returning to Fort Carson.
"They put me on some medications that caused me to flip out and do some pretty crazy things," says Hartmann. "It's just, the medication just kind of took over."
Hartmann, however, says his symptoms of pain and anxiety persisted so he resorted to illicit drugs.
"I didn't want to sleep. The nightmares were killing me from being over there," he said. "Ah, the pain was so bad, I didn't want to deal with it." Hartmann says he turned to methamphetamines to avoid the nightmares that tormented him and describes staying awake for 45 days straight.
Hartmann says he was able to kick his methamphetamine habit but still takes a wide variety of medication prescribed by Army doctors.
Hartmann is certainly not the only soldier to abuse drugs. Michael Lemke thinks there are thousands of PTSD-related drug abuse cases.
"Soldiers would often attempt to self-medicate using both legal substances including abusing their own prescriptions, and they medicate using illicit, self-medicating using illicit substances," explains Lemke. "And then what happens is a soldier whose PTSD is not treated and he now has a kind of an addiction. The failure of the Army to recognize how much they contribute to the problem I think is one of their greatest failures."
Former Marine Maj. Gamal Awad said he just looks forward to a life where he doesn't need to resort to a daily dose of medication.
"They always talk about getting us to a normal life. You know, I would just…I'd like to be able to sleep. I mean, can you do that?" asks Awad. "I would like to be able to do that without having to take a pill. It's probably a little overambitious, but, 'be ideal. But, until then, this is my reality."