March 24, 2010— -- After years on the battlefield or in the trenches, many American soldiers are showing signs of psychological distress. An increasing number of soldiers are turning to medication to alleviate their symptoms.
From the isolated outposts of Afghanistan to the bloody streets of Fallujah in Iraq, U.S. troops have been fighting, dying and suffering unbearable emotional scars. A 2008 Rand Corporation study found under 20 percent of soldiers reported psychological distress in some form.
Some have unfortunately committed suicide, but ABC News has been told that an increasing number -- at least 8 percent of the force -- are now using pills to treat themselves. Some are turning to antidepressants, such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil, which are prescribed right on the front lines.
"We are sending soldiers into the field, into combat missions, who are suicidal," said former Air Force psychologist Jason Prinster. "And we are prescribing medication that has significant side effects."
He also told ABC News that the Army's culture of treating physical injuries as more serious than psychological ones can lead to bad operating procedure, in his opinion. "If your leg is broken, if you have a physical problem, you can stay inside the wire. If you are anxious, afraid, hopeless, it's not OK," he said.
Soldiers say the side effects can affect their combat readiness; some medications cause sluggishness and disorientation. Army Sgt. Chuck Luther told ABC News that "some would make me more depressed, some would make me jittery."
Luther was an Army sergeant based in Taji, Iraq. He told ABC News he didn't get therapy for his emotional problems, just drugs to help him make it through his deployment.
"Mortars would come in … suicide bombers. It was taking a toll on me … and then seeing fellow soldiers being killed in front of you."
ABC News asked Col. John Looper, an Army psychologist stationed in Iraq, what he thought of the prescriptions. "If the treating clinician feels that a given service member might be restored to full functioning with a course of antidepressant medication or anti-anxiety medication, we have the wherewithal to do that," he told us.
The military is making an effort to provide therapy to service members having mental health issues, but given the remoteness of some bases, it is not always possible, and remains a real concern.