Imagine dutifully serving and surviving your combat tours in the Middle East, only to return home and be killed by a prescription drug. That is apparently what is happening to hundreds of young military veterans coming back to the U.S. from Afghanistan and Iraq with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who are being treated with a cocktail of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and other prescription drugs.
Stan and Shirley White of Charleston, West Virginia, were coping with the grief of losing their son Bob, a Fort Bragg paratrooper, in Afghanistan, when their other son Andrew, who had returned home from combat in Iraq, suddenly died in his bedroom.
Andrew, a 23-year-old Marine, suffered from PTSD. The Whites told WTVD that Andrew relied on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors for help in dealing with the psychological distress. He was put on a combination of Seroquel, Klonopin, and Paxil.
But Andrew’s body couldn’t handle the toxicity of those potent prescription drugs. The medical examiner ruled that Andrew died from “fatal drug intoxication;” the autopsy found a suspicious combination of drugs may have played a role in his death.
“He died because of his PTSD, because of what he saw in the war zone. The medication is what killed him. We consider him as being a casualty of war,” Stan told WTVD.
“We call it the lethal cocktail. It’s antidepressants, antipsychotics and analgesics. It’s just overloading, and your body can’t take it,” Stan explained.
Andrew White is one of the “Charleston Four,” a group of four young war vets who, according to WTVD, were all taking similar medication for PTSD. In 2008, all four died in their sleep within weeks of each other.
But those four vets are likely part of a much larger group. Hearing about the Charleston Four, San Diego neurologist Fred Baughman started to investigate. He compiled a list of 300 veterans who died of sudden cardiac arrests. Not having access to medical reports, Dr. Baughman relied on news reports, which means there could be several more deaths that went unreported.
“I came to the conclusion that these were somehow unique, unusual deaths,” Dr. Baughman told WTVD. “Young men in their 20s don’t just die in their sleep.”
“Specifically, it points to the antipsychotics and the antidepressants that they are on, which are known to cause sudden cardiac deaths,” he added.
When the son of John and Mary Nahas came home from Iraq with PTSD, VA doctors put him on a regimen of drugs that included Oxycodone, Xanax, Percocet, Klonopin, Celexa, Lunesta, and Ambien. When the VA released their son, the Nahas were shocked to find him gray and emaciated, resembling “a concentration camp victim.”
Mentally and emotionally he wasn’t any better either. The Nahas told WTVD his personality declined. His cognition and behavior took a turn for the worse. He was angry and couldn’t think straight. Ironically, the drugs meant to improve their son made him suicidal and psychotic.
Mary’s niece, a psychologist in a psychiatric hospital, was dismayed by the list of drugs Mary’s son was prescribed. “Oh Mary, that’s a cocktail of death. They’re trying to kill him,” her niece said, according to the WTVD report.
Questions about why doctors are doping veterans up on potentially lethal combinations and doses of prescription drugs are slow to be answered. A Department of Defense memo obtained by WTVD’s investigative team that was sent to all branches of the military “specifically cautions medical providers about the use of some antipsychotics for anxiety disorders — including PTSD or sleep disturbances — especially given the risk of cardiac effects.”
The same memo also says “providers should offer the lowest risk medication and non-medication options.” But it seems these instructions were lost on many military and private doctors. A recent VA investigation into Andrew White’s death, for instance, concluded his doctors met the acceptable standards of care.
The Whites have traveled to Washington repeatedly to talk with the appropriate legislators, regulators, and administrators about launching a probe into this growing “epidemic,” as Stan sees it.
“I want to see a Congressional investigation into why these kids are being overmedicated,” Stan explained to WTVD reporters.
The couple is also pushing for reforms that would provide more counseling and outdoor activities and less medication to vets.