US Re-Deploys Sick Soldiers on Meds

It's no secret that a lot of soldiers return from combat zones with mental health problems -- the Associated Press reported as much on a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association at the end of last month, and the story was widely carried.

Thirty-five percent of Iraq veterans received mental health care during their first year home, according to the study. In addition, 12 percent of the more than 222,000 returning Army soldiers and Marines in the study were diagnosed with a mental problem. Nineteen percent of those back from Iraq reported mental health concerns, compared with 11 percent of those back from Afghanistan and 8.5 percent of those returning from other places, such as Bosnia.

But now the San Diego Union Tribune is reporting that "mentally ill service members are being returned to combat" equipped "with a cache of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications." You know, the kind that say on the bottle: May cause drowsiness. Use caution when operating a car or dangerous machinery. Like, say, heavy weaponry? The redeployments are legal, and nobody is forcing the soldiers to go, reports the Union-Trib. But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) says the policy needs more civilian oversight, i.e. the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health, which should start next month. Boxer, who wrote legislation establishing the task force, told the Union-Trib, "We've also heard reports that doctors are being encouraged not to identify mental-health illness in our troops.... If people are suffering from mental-health problems, they should not be sent on the battlefield."

Officials from the Defense Department and Camp Pendleton, where some units have been to Iraq three times, said they don't track personnel deployed while taking mental-health medication or the number diagnosed with mental illness.

But medical officers for the Army and Marine Corps acknowledge that medicated service members - and those suffering combat-induced psychological problems - are returning to war. And anecdotal evidence, bolstered by the government's own studies, suggest that the number could be significant.

A 2004 Army report found that up to 17 percent of combat-seasoned infantrymen experienced major depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder after one combat tour to Iraq. Less than 40 percent of them had sought mental-health care.

Even more troubling than perhaps complicating soldiers' mental-health illnesses and endangering their combat-readiness, is the allegation from Steve Robinson, director of the National Gulf War Resource Center in Silver Spring, Md., that the Pentagon is trying to pare its budget by cutting needed services to soldiers and vets.

Robinson said three Army doctors have told him about being pressured by their commanders not to identify mental conditions that would prevent personnel from being deployed.

"They are being told to diagnose combat-stress reaction instead of PTSD," he said. "That does two things: It keeps the troops deployable and it makes it hard for them to collect disability claims once they get out of the military."