Prescription Drug Abuse in the Military

Prescription Drug Abuse in the Military

by Tessie Castillo, NC Harm Reduction Coalition

Jeremy battled depression and drug addiction for years before his wife’s announcement of her pregnancy jolted him onto the path to recovery. But Jeremy’s battle with prescription painkillers didn’t start with youthful experimentation or covert exchanges with street dealers. He got his drugs from the military.

A Sergeant and combat medic, Jeremy sustained a shoulder injury during his second tour in Afghanistan. A military provider prescribed him Percocet, a strong opiate for pain relief. At first Jeremy used the pills to relieve physical pain, but as the injury healed, he continued to seek out medication to alleviate the emotional pain of combat duty.

“I’d pop 2-3 pills sometimes on my days off, just to have a better day,” Jeremy explains. “Lots of soldiers in the military deal with depression and PTSD. It’s a dramatic lifestyle change and you never have time to process all the horrors you see in combat. Even in the clinics, doctors and nurses see mangled bodies all the time. Years later I still have days when I wake up feeling down about it. I think veterans are susceptible to addiction to opiates and barbituates because they give a sense of euphoria and can numb physical and emotional pain.”

Jeremy’s addiction escalated towards the end of his combat tour, and especially once he left the army and returned to civilian life.

“I came home to Alabama, started college on the GI bill, and kept using pills,” he says. “In college a lot of people have access to [pain pills]. I started to go to different doctors and ask for 20 pills here, 40 pills there for made-up injuries. I did all that while maintaining a 4.0 GPA, but I was high all the time.”

Jeremy became so good at hiding his addiction that no one, not even his wife, knew his secret. He did seek help from the VA Hospital, but was told it would be 6-7 weeks before he could receive assistance.

“When you’re addicted you need help immediately,” he explains. “If you can’t get help in that moment, by the next day you could change your mind. My addiction continued until I was spending every dollar I had on drugs, mostly Percocet, Oxycontin and Fentanyl.”

At the time of his struggles, Jeremy lost two veteran friends to drug overdose. He strongly believes that the military needs to provide more education and support to soldiers. “Not enough is done to check soldiers’ mental health. When we got back from Afghanistan, we had to do a five minutes soldier readiness check right away where they ask about mental status. If they would delay those questions a couple months to give soldiers time to process what they have experienced, I think it would be a lot more effective. And all soldiers should be briefed about the habits that may develop as coping mechanisms.”

In addition to better screening and education within the military, Jeremy supports civilian efforts to lower the rates of overdose deaths, such as 911 Good Samaritan laws and increased access to the opiate antidote, naloxone. Passed in ten states, 911 Good Samaritan laws grant limited immunity from arrest for small amounts of drugs and paraphernalia to witnesses who call 911 to save the life of someone experiencing an overdose. Naloxone is a drug that can be used safely and effectively to reverse a potentially fatal drug overdose, and governments, community organizations and treatment providers alike are urging increased access to this life-saving antidote.

“I’m definitely behind these laws,” says Jeremy. “I’ve come close to overdosing a few times, and I’m not sure I would have called 911 for fear of the consequences.”

Jeremy eventually sought help from a deacon at this church after his wife announced she was pregnant with their first child. Through the support of his church, Jeremy was able to seek treatment and has continued to serve as an active member to help others in similar situations.

“I’ve been clean and sober since May 22, 2010,” says Jeremy. “Now I try to share my story as often as I can to reach out to other people. I hope I can help someone else who was in my same situation.”
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Tessie Castillo is the Program Coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition