As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, we're learning that a large number of troops are turning to medication to deal with the stress of battle.
Each year, between 20 and 40 soldiers are evacuated from war zones for mental problems brought on by combat, says CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin, and many more stay in the battle with the help of medication.
A recent survey found 12 percent of soldiers in Iraq reported taking either anti-depressants or sleeping pills. That works out to about 19,000 soldiers, half of them using anti-depressants.
"We are in new territory," Martin quoted an Army psychiatrist as saying, meaning, Martin explained, that never before have anti-depressants without dangerous side effects been available to soldiers facing repeated combat tours.
Starting in the late 1980s, anti-depressants that didn't cause dizziness, drowsiness and other complications began to come on the market. Then, Martin observed, came Iraq and Afghanistan, with their multiple combat tours and demands for increasing numbers of troops -- and the Pentagon approved prescribing drugs such as Zoloft, Prozac and Paxil for soldiers who otherwise might have to be evacuated from the war zone.
"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become one of the signature wounds of this war," Martin pointed out. "Now, anti-depressants are emerging as one of the signature medications."
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith Tuesday, "This high rate of the use of anti-depressants and sleeping pills is really just a symptom of a deeper problem. We're sending folks back over and over again in a tremendously stressful environment, and it's taking its toll. The anti-depressants and sleeping pills are one way that the military and the individuals are trying to meet that threat."
There's a lot of debate over whether the use of such medications under those circumstances is a good idea, Rieckhoff says, adding, "What we need to look at is how to reduce the overall stress. And that starts with reducing the deployments. They only get about a year home, if that, doing a 12-to-16 month tour. We know that about half-a-million folks have been to Iraq more than once. So, they're going back over and over again.
"That's why we're seeing the (high) suicide rate in the Army. One-hundred-fifteen folks in the Army committed suicide last year. That's the highest rate since 1980. So, we've gotta look at those other factors that are causing the stress, in addition to the violence, in addition to the family stress and all of that other stuff that piles up on the troops."
The chances of someone returning from a deployment suffering from PTSD increase with each additional time they're sent back, Smith noted, calling it "a very bad recipe," and Rieckhoff concurred, commenting, "It is. Simple supply and demand. We continue to increase the demand on our troops, but we haven't increased the overall number of troops dramatically. There was an Army Ranger who was recently killed on his eighth tour.
"Folks coming home are at risk -- about one-in-five are gonna come home with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression. There was a big study from the Rand Institute a few weeks ago that confirmed those numbers.
"And we need more support services, both when they're in the military and, especially, when they come home."
"It's hard to get to a doctor when you're in a war zone," Rieckhoff continued. "With the recent surge, we increased the number of troops by about 30,000, but we didn't increase the number of mental health care workers. We've got to increase the number of folks in the field; we've got to get them to a doctor more often. It's really hard to get your prescription checked when you've gotta go across the country or across your sector in a very dangerous environment, with the roadside bombs. It's a very dangerous recipe."
At home, says Rieckhoff, "They've got to have follow-up. The V.A. (Veterans Administration) has a long wait time right now. Hundreds of thousands of claims are backed up. The average wait time is about 183 days to process a claim. We've got to do a better job at the V.A., when they come home, as well, because that's when most folks are gonna show that they have a mental health problem and seek out the treatment."
Using these drugs is "definitely a Band Aid solution," Rieckhoff concluded. "We're continuing to send folks over and over again. This is one way for the Army to keep people in the fight. We know recruiting numbers are stressed, retention numbers are stressed, and this is one way for ... the Pentagon to keep people on the front lines. But there is a long-term cost to the military and for the individuals.
"This week, in the House and Senate, we'll be fighting for a new G.I. Bill. That's a critical way to take care of these folks when they come home as well, and we've got to pay up and take care of our veterans when they come home."