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Army's Approach to Drug Treatment Criticized

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While more returning U.S. soldiers struggle with addiction to painkillers prescribed by Army doctors to treat their combat injuries, the U.S. Army's approach to treating addicted soldiers is drawing increasing criticism, the Associated Press reported Jan. 21.

In the six years since the start of the war in Iraq, use of legal painkillers like Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin by injured troops has increased nearly 70 percent. Surveys reveal that more soldiers are struggling with prescription drug addiction and are seeking help from Army doctors and counselors.

But some critics say that the military system that historically relies on discipline as well as treatment is mishandling their charge. Barbara McDonald, a civilian social worker and Army drug abuse counselor, described the Army's handling of the recent surge in prescription drug abuse as “a terrible problem,” calling the military's approach a broken system, as likely to punish or denigrate troops as to treat their addictions.

A recent court martial and subsequent imprisonment of a soldier in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for illegally buying prescription drugs and selling the pills to eight other soldiers, along with allegations of misconduct and staffing shortages in the Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP), induced Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-Mo.) to ask the Secretary of the Army to investigate.

“Clearly, at Fort Leonard Wood and potentially across the military, they have not prioritized this as a health issue,” McCaskill said. “The culture has traditionally looked at this as a discipline issue.”

Army officials have defended their treatment approach, even while acknowledging treatment staffing shortages nationally; ASAP is 90 counselors short of required employment levels.

Chuck Ashbrook, who oversees ASAP prevention and education efforts at Fort Leonard Wood, said counselors pay close attention to links between substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and combat injuries, noting that medical advances have allowed soldiers who might have returned from previous conflicts as casualties to survive with injuries that require stronger pain management.

Ashbrook also cited historical increases in drug dependency among soldiers during wartime. “We've always seen these kinds of problems,” Ashbrook said. “This is not unique.”

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