Is the Military Ignoring Its Heroin Problem in the Ranks?

The U.S. military has known about the problem of drug use in its ranks since the Vietnam War, when contemporaneous accounts suggested up to 15 percent of enlisted men tried or became addicted to opiates. But, for the first time since then, the military has soldiers in combat in a producer-country: Afghanistan, which produces more than 90 percent of the world's heroin despite decades of eradication efforts.

For many soldiers bored or traumatized, the access to cheap, strong heroin is likely to be a powerful lure and, in fact, reports going back to 2006 show that heroin can be easily--and cheaply--obtained mere steps off Bagram Air Base. Shaun McCanna, reporting for Salon in 2007, was able to arrange to receive heroin worth hundreds of dollars in the U.S. for $30 in the Bagram Bazaar multiple times.

My driver translates, "He wants to know how much you want? Twenty, 30, 50 dollars' worth?" From past experience, for I have arranged this same transaction a dozen times in a dozen different Bagram Bazaar shops, I know that the $30 bag will contain enough pure to bring hundreds of dollars on the streets of any American city. Afghanistan, after all, is the source of 90 percent of the world's heroin. I say 30 and the teen jogs off.

McCanna was initially turned on to the heroin problem at Bagram by the death of a soldier, John Torres, who told his family about the heroin problems at Bagram before his death under mysterious circumstances. McCanna bought heroin more than a dozen times in Bagram while filming a documentary about Torres' death and saw ample evidence that soldiers were trading military equipment for drugs as well.

In 2007, the military denied that there was a heroin problem among soldiers in Afghanistan.

At Bagram, according to a written statement provided by a spokesperson for the base, Army Maj. Chris Belcher, the "Military Police receive few reports of alcohol or drug issues."

However, when McCanna made arrangements to speak with three veterans receiving treatment for heroin addiction on the record, his efforts were stymied by the military and the VA. The only publicly available data available to McCanna showed the number of soldiers who fail random drug screenings, which all indicated low or non-existent levels of heroin abuse, despite reports from soldiers and rehabilitation facilities of soldiers using the drug.

McCanna's piece was published more than two years ago, but a recent filing by Gerald Posner in The Daily Beast indicates that little has changed with either the military's attentiveness to the problem or the market for heroin among military personnel. Recently, a former general-turned-drug-czar Barry McCaffrey admitted, to the military's chagrin, that a problem likely exists.

Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general who was the U.S. drug czar under Bill Clinton, told a conference of addiction-treatment providers that serious drug use among U.S. troops in Afghanistan has doubled in the last four years, and that as the Obama administration moves more soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan, more will fall prey. “[Soldiers] are going to stick it up their nose and like it," he told the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers this past May.=

And while the military likes to trumpet its testing results as evidence that there's no problem with addiction among the troops, they quietly admitted to Posner that testing troops in Afghanistan has proven problematic.

Rhonda K. Paige, the chief of the public affairs and strategic communications office of the Army’s deputy chief of staff, told The Daily Beast, “We apply the same testing requirements to soldiers in theater as we do to soldiers at home station; but not at the risk of the mission and or our soldiers' personal safety.”

George Wright, a Pentagon-based Army spokesman told me, “In Iraq, a majority of units inspected at the brigade, battalion, and company levels were meeting the intent of current Army policy, but compliance in Afghanistan is problematic due to operational tempo and unit dispersion.”

In other words, they aren't really testing the troops in Afghanistan regularly. In fact, Wright was unable to find any data later than 2006--the data the military provided McCanna in 2007. However, the VA reported 22,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking substance abuse treatment in 2008, a significant increase from the 9,000 they saw in 2006, and the numbers are only expected the grow.

Despite the well-documented access to heroin in Afghanistan, anecdotal evidence of widespread drug abuse and private concerns about soldiers trafficking cheap heroin stateside, Posner reports that the DEA doesn't have a single case officer serving in Afghanistan or Iraq looking into drug trafficking.

In the end, no one knows exactly how many U.S. troops are using heroin, though it is unlikely that the military's acknowledged "none" is any reflection of reality. But with the military's outright refusal to acknowledge the reality of drug abuse and addiction among troops in the field, it's equally unlikely that military or VA health services are prepared for any onslaught of addiction patients requiring counseling and rehabilitation.

Posner notes that methadone clinics are already overpacked despite the military's denials, and VA counselors suggest that it will take years from some patients to seek the help they likely already need.

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