The number of American soldiers seeking treatment for opiate abuse has skyrocketed over the past five years, at a time when the U.S. military has been surging forces into the heart of the world’s leading opium producer.
Pentagon statistics obtained by FoxNews.com show that the number of Army soldiers enrolled in Substance Abuse Program counseling for opiates has soared nearly 500 percent — from 89 in 2004 to 529 last year. The number showed a steady increase almost every year in that time frame — but it leaped 50 percent last year when the U.S. began surging troops into Afghanistan. Army troop levels in Afghanistan went from 14,000 as of the end of 2004 to 46,400 as of the end of 2009.
The Army did not break down the opiate-use data to show how many of the soldiers had been deployed to Afghanistan or what specific opiates they were using; opiate drugs include morphine, codeine and heroin.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. Army spokesman, said the military has been monitoring the uptick and is “concerned about it.” He said the numbers reflect use not only of heroin, but of prescription drugs, that the abuse may not be “directly correlated to previous deployments,” and that the increase could reflect an increase in reporting abuse — not just drug use itself.
But the abundance and accessibility of heroin in Afghanistan surely account for part of the jump, said Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, an Army Reserve officer who served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004.
Shaffer said heroin abuse had “started to get out of hand” when he was in the country. He said a “black market” existed where troops on U.S. bases would trade goods to local Afghans in exchange for heroin.
“It sounds like it kind of went way beyond that,” he said after learning about the statistics. “It’s inevitable. … It’s available. It’s right there.”
Shaffer, who now works with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, said the availability of the product combined with high stress levels from multiple tours of duty amounts to a dangerous mix that can lead to hard drug abuse.
As a potential measure of Army stress levels, suicides have steadily climbed in recent years. The Army reported there were 160 possible suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2009, up from 140 the year before.
Hat Tip: BLN