John Lasker won a Project Censored award in 2012 for his Toward Freedom reporting on Military Sexual Trauma or MST. He met dozens of female and male soldiers who were victims of MST. The following is the story of a female veteran from Seattle who is desperately trying to leave Iraq behind and reclaim her past life.
Gena Smith is like many 30-somethings. She is a voracious reader who’s gone through a vampire literature phase. She has spent entire days playing video games with past boyfriends, and she’s a fan of Dungeons and Dragons.
But for several years now Smith has lost her way, all because of one fateful decision she made ten years ago when she joined the military in a desire to better herself, receive college tuition and expand her career opportunities.
As a result from of serving in Iraq, Smith is now suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD; the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimates over 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are dealing with PTSD, and that’s just as of 2009.
Roughly a year ago Smith was living outside Seattle in a new home with her fiancé. But following a recent blunder on the part of the VA, Smith became semi-homeless and living in a hotel in Wyoming near her parent’s home. This reporter is a friend of Smith’s and has followed her story on and off during the last four years, and by all accounts the ex-soldier’s life was improving.
“Last Christmas I was…baking cookies and painting ornaments,” she said. “(Now) PTSD has ruined the best relationship I’ve ever had.”
Her past as a US Army intelligence specialist in Iraq for an all-male infantry unit has seemingly branded her for life. But Smith is also a talented writer. She pens a blog about being a survivor of both war and Military Sexual Trauma or MST. The blog is fittingly titled “Regular Fury”.
What triggered her latest relapse wasn’t Iraq’s recent wave of violence; it was the drugs prescribed to her by the VA. Her story mirrors tens-of-thousands of veterans who, on top of their PTSD, are now addicted to prescription drugs.
When Smith returned home in 2007 following a 15-month deployment, the VA prescribed over time 12 different psychotropic medications to control the onslaught of intrusive memories and nightmares about being raped by a fellow soldier.
Slowly, the right combination guided her to a point where she wouldn’t panic when navigating a crowd, among battling with other anxieties. But soon the pills had a grip on her, and she became dependent – a common problem heard from many veterans suffering from PTSD.
In the aftermath of fighting two wars over a period of more than ten years, the VA has spent billions on prescription drugs seeking to blunt the PTSD epidemic. Since 2001 the VA spent over $700 million on Seroquel alone, an anti-psychotic used to treat PTSD.
Critics say over-medicating veterans is a quick fix, and like war itself, will leave its own tragic legacy.
Indeed, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch, an estimated 500,000 veterans use painkillers chronically, and the death rate from opiate overdoses amongst VA patients is double the national average.
What is less clear is the actual number of veterans hooked on psychotropics, which are anti-anxiety meds, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. This is due in part to the US government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, which hasn’t officially designated these drugs as addictive. What is revealing, however, is the $2.7 billion the military and the VA have spent on anti-depressants alone over the past decade.
Throughout last year, along with an anti-depressant, Smith was taking Clonazepam, an anti-anxiety med officially classified as a “benzodiazepines,” and according to doctors, should only be used short term. Drug abusers call them “benzos” claiming the prescription drug’s potent high is hard to kick because the withdrawals are equal to, or ever worse than, trying to quit heroin.
Recently, the VA accidentally canceled Smith’s prescriptions causing her life to spiral out of control.
“Here I am [in Wyoming] with a bag full of clothes living out of a hotel, going though two traumatic withdrawals from medications that I should have had, but the VA screwed me,” she said. “The VA has turned me into a junkie and they don’t care. After all, they can’t fix me, so I will never have a life anyway.”
Smith is a pioneer to say the least, but not by choice. Because the US military was stretched so thin fighting two wars, Smith was one of the first female soldiers to be ordered out of her co-ed unit and into an all-male infantry unit in a combat zone even though a ban on women in combat was in place. (This ban was lifted in 2013 by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.)
It was 2006, the height of the Iraq insurgency, and for the next 15 months Smith and her brigade were encamped near Baqubah, Iraq. She slept on dusty concrete, engaged the enemy with her M4 rifle, and often spent hours riding in the “hell-hole” (next to the engine) of an armored carrier called a Stryker. The temperature in the vehicle could reach 120 degrees, but the heat was bearable compared to the constant fear of getting obliterated from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
At one point, during a shoot-out against insurgents, her commanding officer ordered her to run for water. As she returned, an enemy sniper tried to take her out.
Another time, roughly half way through her deployment, she was jolted awake in the middle of the night and told to race to the command tent. There, they broke the news that her only good friend in the unit, 21-year-old Cpl. Mathew Alexander, who played Dungeons and Dragons with her in the rubble at night, was dead. A Russian freelance photographer had convinced command to send a Stryker into the combat zone. But as they maneuvered through a trash-strewn street, the armored vehicle was destroyed by an IED. Five other soldiers from her brigade perished along with the photographer.
Smith explained that there was one aspect of this living hell that was worse than all the rest: she was one woman in an all-male unit.
“The sexual harassment was constant during the whole deployment,” she said.
Soon after she joined the unit, Smith was raped at night by a male soldier she thought she could trust.
“Once you’ve accepted that people who were supposed to care about you, or at least be responsible for your safety will rape you and hurt you beyond anything you’ve ever felt, you can never be the same again,” Smith explained.
When she returned home she once again trusted those who promised to care for her. The VA doctors told her they could end the PTSD.
Seven years later, “they are still telling me that my prognosis is good and I am going to be fine.”
To understand how pervasive prescription drug use is within the military and among veterans, soldiers up until 2012 had the choice of deploying to Afghanistan with a 180-day supply of Seroquel.
Seroquel is commonly referred by drug abusers as “Jail House heroin.” But if the National Institute on Drug Abuse were to designate Seroquel as addictive, it would be a costly blow to the drug’s manufacturer AstraZeneca and its shareholders.
It is likely that AstraZeneca’s financial influence in Washington contributes significantly to the military’s controversial need for prescription drugs. From 2002 to 2011, AstraZeneca had 14 lobbying firms give $35 million to Congress and other federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent office of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. During that time the VA’s spending on Seroquel increased more than 770 percent.
Even more disturbing is the fact that Matthew J. Friedman, former executive director of the US Department of Veteran Affairs National Center for PTSD, was on the pay-roll ofAstraZeneca in 2009 and publicly promoted Seroquel.
Stan White, a retired assistant principle from West Virginia, has lost two sons to war during the past decade. His eldest son Robert died in combat. His son Andrew made it home, but died suddenly in his sleep. White says Andrew was mentally besieged by Seroquel, which when taken with anti-depressants has been linked to cardiac arrest. White believes the politicians who sent Robert and Andrew to war are sold-out to AstraZeneca.
Why the US military continues to over-prescribe prescription drugs for PTSD is easy to explain. According to White, “It’s the cheapest way to deal with the problem. What we need is less medication and more peer counseling and professional counseling.”
Hopefully the VA will figure out better solutions for Gena Smith and so many other veterans before it is too late.
John Lasker is a freelance journalist fromColumbus,Ohio.