Bombs and Speed Kill in Afghanistan

Here's one anti-drug advertising campaign you'll never see:

Scene One -- Bombs exploding on the mountainsides of Afghanistan. Narrator: "This is the bombing of Afghanistan."

Scene Two -- U.S. bombs hitting several Afghan villages. Dead men, women and children litter the streets. Narrator: "This is the bombing of Afghanistan, on drugs."

Have you wondered why there have been so many botched bombing missions in Afghanistan, resulting in an, as of yet, undetermined number of civilian casualties? Were you surprised when a U.S. Air Force pilot dropped a 500-lb laser-guided bomb and killed four Canadian members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in mid April? Are you aware that bombing continues?

Two recent reports from the Vancouver Sun and the Toronto Star may shed some light on these questions.

In early June, the Vancouver Sun reported: "Pilots from the U.S. fighter squadron that mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan had told their commanders shortly before the fatal accident that they were exhausted and needed more rest between missions."

At least one F-16 pilot "complained that requirements for crew rest were not being observed and that many of the pilots were overtired." He was told that "further questions about crew rest would not be looked on favorably by the wing command." Instead of complaining, "pilots were advised to speak to a flight surgeon about so-called 'go/no pills'-amphetamines used to help stay awake on long missions, and sedatives to help sleep."

No magic carpet ride

In a more detailed early-August piece in the Toronto Star, William Walker reported that "U.S. jet fighter pilots, responsible for at least 10 deadly 'friendly fire' accidents in the Afghanistan war, have regularly been given amphetamines to fly longer hours." Walker reports that after the extended missions, pilots return to base and are given "sedatives by air force doctors to help them sleep." Then, "often less than 12 hours later," they are sent on their next mission

The Toronto Star found the names of the "exact drugs pilots are given and how they're taken" in a 24-page document produced by the Top Gun fighter training school and the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola, Florida. According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force Surgeon-General's Office in Washington, "pilots are given the stimulant Dexedrine, generically known as dextroamphetamine, to stay alert during combat missions in Afghanistan."

"Pilots refer to Dexedrine as 'go-pills.' The sleeping pills they are given, called Ambien (zolpidem) and Restoril (temazepam), are referred to as 'no-go pills.' "When fatigue could be expected to degrade air crew performance, they are given Dexedrine in 10 mg doses," air force spokeswoman Betty-Anne Mauger told The Star.

According to the Star, "medical literature indicates that amphetamines can have severe side effects. The worst is called 'amphetamine psychosis.' It causes hallucinations as well as paranoid delusions. 'Dexedrine also leads a person to build a tolerance level for the drug and when higher doses are offered, anything at that level develops addictive tendencies among those who continue to use it regularly,' said Dr. Joyce A. Walsleben, director of the Sleep Disorder Centre at the New York University School of Medicine. 'The threat of abuse and addiction is definitely higher with Dexedrine.'"

More on the side effects of amphetamine use comes from Drugwar.com which sites a note from Russ Kick's website, the Memory Hole: "Although this Naval publication repeatedly lists the side effects of amphetamine use, it never mentions tremor, nervousness, anxiety, and dizziness (listed at WebMD) or overstimulation, dysphoria, tics, diarrhea, and Tourette's syndrome (listed at RxList), not to mention the rare occurrences of psychosis and hallucinations. In fact, WebMD warns: 'Use caution when driving, operating machinery, or performing other hazardous activities. Dextroamphetamine may cause dizziness, blurred vision, or restlessness, and it may hide the symptoms of extreme tiredness.'"

Was this potentially addicting combination of uppers and downers in part responsible for the faulty judgment that may have led to the deaths of the Canadians? "Better bombing through chemistry," was the way John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-area defense policy think-tank, phrased it for the Toronto Star. "This was certainly one of my first thoughts after the Canadian "friendly"-fire accident. The initial depiction made it seem as if the pilot was behaving in an unusually aggressive fashion."

Pilots in the sky with ...

According to the Star, Illinois Air National Guard Maj. Harry Schmidt was piloting the F-16 supersonic fighter that dropped the bomb. Maj. William Umbach was flying with him in another F-16 that night. "I don't know the answer," Schmidt's lawyer, Charles Gittins, told the Star, when asked whether Dexedrine was involved. "I never asked my pilot if he was medicated. But it's quite common. He's on vacation now, so I'll check with him about it when he gets back."

How widespread is drug use in the Air Force? Is it officially sanctioned? According to Pike, "The aviation community and the Air Force community certainly don't like to talk about so-called 'performance enhancing' drugs," he said. The Toronto Star: "There have been reports that Schmidt and his fellow pilots-originally deployed to patrol the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone over southern Iraq from an American base in Kuwait-had complained of fatigue since they were also ordered to fly combat missions over Afghanistan. Gittins said he was not aware of such complaints.

They "had to fly for three hours to arrive at the combat zone. An F-16 mission to Afghanistan from Kuwait routinely takes nine hours including three hours over the target area plus the trip back. Pilots also attend pre-flight briefings and debriefings after they return."

Mauger, the Air Force spokeswoman, said that "Dexedrine is commonly used by pilots on missions of more than eight hours' duration, or when pilots get less than the recommended 12 hours' rest between missions, as was the case for the pilots on double duty from the Kuwait air base.

The Top Gun document, entitled "Performance Maintenance During Continuous Flight Operations," reports that "in an anonymous survey among pilots who flew in Desert Storm, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 60 percent said they used Dexedrine. In units that saw the most frequent combat missions, usage was as high as 96 percent." During the Persian Gulf War pills were 5mg each (in contrast to today's 10mg pills).

According to the Top Gun report, "pilots are allowed to 'self-regulate' the amounts of Dexedrine they take. They carry the pills in the single-person cockpit of their F-16s and take them as they wish. As one unidentified Desert Storm squadron commander said of his pilots in the document: 'You must give them guidelines and then let them self-regulate. If you can't trust them with the medication then you can't trust them with a 50 million dollar airplane to try and go kill someone.'"

Retired Col. Richard Graham of Plano, Texas, who logged 4,600 hours of flight time in the U.S. Air Force, including 210 combat missions in Vietnam, said pilots in that war routinely took Dexedrine. The Air Force approved its use in 1960. "We would be tested for uppers and downers and if we tolerated them okay, we went forward," he said in an interview. As long as nobody is abusing it, I think it's okay. "I'm not a big fan of anybody taking medication in the flight business, but sometimes situations call for it in combat. I never had any bad effects from it and it served me well."

This is the president's "war on terrorism." This is the president's "war on terrorism" on drugs!

Bill Berkowitz's WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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