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Drugging America’s Veterans: Painkiller Abuse Spreads as VA Becomes Vets’ “Drug Dealer of Choice”

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We look at challenges faced by U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with investigative reporter Aaron Glantz, who has spent more than a decade covering the Iraq War and the treatment veterans receive when they come home. This week, The Center for Investigative Reporting won a prestigious Peabody Award for his report that exposes how the Department of Veterans Affairs has become the drug dealer of choice for many veterans who are now addicted to prescription painkillers, which were prescribed to treat a myriad of mental health and other physical injuries. According to the investigation, VA prescriptions for four opiates — hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine — have surged by 270 percent in the past 12 years.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at challenges faced by U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as we turn to a report by our guest, reporter Aaron Glantz, who spent more than a decade covering the Iraq War and the treatment veterans receive when they come home. This week, he and The Center for Investigative Reporting won a prestigious Peabody Award for exposing how the Veterans Administration has become a drug dealer of choice for many veterans who are now addicted to prescription painkillers. This is the clip from that report, called “Drugging America’s Veterans.”

AARON GLANTZ: U.S. Army Specialist Jeffrey Wagoner received a funeral with full military honors. He was medically evacuated out of Afghanistan in 2007 after he sustained a groin injury when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded during a house-to-house search. But that’s not what killed him. Wagoner survived his deployment. He died back home in this motel, just hours after being discharged from a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Oregon. While recovering from his wounds, Wagoner’s mental state deteriorated. He became addicted to painkillers. And the Army sent him to the detox center at this VA hospital in Roseburg to get clean. But the hospital continued to give him narcotics. And after two months, they released him with a massive cocktail of drugs, including 12 tablets of the painkiller oxycodone. Since Jeff’s death, his father Greg has been trying to piece together what happened.

GREG WAGONER: I couldn’t believe the amount of medications that was being prescribed to him.

AARON GLANTZ: After he left the hospital, Jeff went to a nearby motel.

GREG WAGONER: He picked up a six-pack of beer. He checked into a room, has a couple beers, decides he’s hungry, and he goes next door to a restaurant, orders up a plate of nachos and another beer, and then becomes very groggy.

AARON GLANTZ: The surveillance footage shows what happened next. Jeff fumbles with the keys to his room, barely able to stand. He nods, then lurches forward and collapses. Wagoner lay on the floor for an hour until the paramedics arrived. They tried to revive him, but it was too late. The state medical examiner concluded that, in addition to the two beers, Jeff consumed eight oxycodone pills, along with tranquilizers and muscle relaxants that he got from the VA. Greg Wagoner has never watched the video. He believes the VA was complicit in his son’s death.

GREG WAGONER: The last thing you would think, as you have a child in the hospital trying to get care, that somebody would call at your door and tell you that he passed away.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from “Drugging America’s Veterans” by reporter Aaron Glantz with The Center for Investigative Reporting. Aaron, pick up the story from there. Talk about how the Department of Veterans Affairs published a study two years ago showing the fatal overdose rate among VA patients—nearly double the national average—but continuing to prescribe veterans increasing amounts of these powerful painkillers.

AARON GLANTZ: Yeah, we—you know, I, as a reporter covering this issue for many years, would always hear from veterans saying, “I went to the VA, and I wanted treatment for this or that or the other thing, and all they would give me is highly addictive narcotic painkillers,” opiates, which are similar in their chemical makeup to heroin. And so, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the VA to get all their prescription data over the last 12 years. And we found a 270 percent increase in the number of opiate prescriptions that these doctors at the VA were writing. And we also found incredible, wild variation in how many prescriptions doctors were writing depending on where a veteran happened to live. So, for example, in Oregon, where Jeffrey Wagoner died, that Roseburg hospital prescribed eight times as many opiates per patient as the one in New York City. There’s no reason to expect that veterans in Oregon are in eight times much pain as those in New York.

So, even though in Washington they knew this was a problem, they didn’t manage it. They allowed doctors who are overstressed, with so many people coming back from war and not nearly enough training or time to treat them, to reach for their prescription pad and write these prescriptions for medications that might dull the pain temporarily, but can have horrible, tragic, sometimes even fatal, results.

AMY GOODMAN: You report that the addiction often starts when soldiers are on active duty.

AARON GLANTZ: Absolutely. So, Jeffrey Wagoner was blown up in Afghanistan. He was airlifted to Walter Reed, where he was given incredible doses of narcotic painkillers to ease his pain, because he had been physically wounded. By the time he had largely physically recovered from the wounds of the explosion that he survived, he had become an addict. And so, the Army sent him, as we heard in the clip, to the VA to a detox unit to get clean. But then, now we see the problem continues at the VA. At the VA, even in the detox unit, they continued to give him opiates. And when they discharged him for the weekend on a weekend pass, they gave him 19 prescriptions for drugs, including the opiates and muscle relaxants that ended up killing him. So, even in the setting where the VA should have been the most controlled, they were hardly controlled at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the settlement that was just announced on Thursday, the wrongful death settlement for veterans.

AARON GLANTZ: Well, this is a similar issue. We always hear the story, the one-off story, the veteran who died after being turned away from the VA, and going to the VA, their survivors, in winning a settlement. I know you on Democracy Now! a decade ago covering the suicide of Corporal Jeffrey Lucey of Belchertown, Massachusetts, who came home from Iraq, was turned away from the VA in Northampton, Massachusetts, and hung himself tragically in his parents’ basement. It took him five years—his parents—to win a $350,000 settlement from the VA.

So how common is this? Again, using the Freedom of Information Act, we at The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained a decade’s worth of data from the VA, and we found that there were nearly a thousand cases where the VA paid money to family members of those who died as a result of negligent care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. And it’s worth noting, as well, that it’s very, very hard to win these settlements, so the number of actual deaths is much higher. And as a perfect example of this, Jeffrey Wagoner, the veteran who overdosed on drugs prescribed by the VA within three hours of being discharged from their detox unit, his family was denied any compensation after his death.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about other side effects of these drugs? For example, Aaron, violence?

AARON GLANTZ: They are linked to violence. Interestingly enough, I was just at a brain injury conference with some of the leading doctors in the country on traumatic brain injury, which is the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. And I was told at a panel by these three eminent physicians that opiates can be linked to violence, especially in people who have sustained a brain injury. And it has to do with the pharmacology of the way in which these opiates interact with—you know, with the brain after an injury.

But I think the most important side effect that people should be aware of is that these are downers. Opiates are downers. Heroin is a downer. Oxycodone is a downer. Vicodin is a downer. And you have this population of people who have been through a war, who are depressed, who are especially at risk of suicide and substance abuse. These are exactly the people that the VA knows should be prescribed opiates very judiciously, because it can be especially damaging to their ability to survive. And yet, we saw, for far too long, the VA going the other direction.

The one thing I would say which is good news is that since our report ran in September, there have been two congressional hearings on this topic. And at the second congressional hearing, which was in March, the VA told Congress that there were 20,000 fewer veterans on opiates than there were when our story ran. And we have been getting reports from around the country that the VA’s claims that they’re rolling out alternative therapies that may be more effective than opiates to veterans are in fact happening at different clinics and hospitals around the country, and that the VA’s plan to make these treatments more available over the next year or two, you know, may actually occur.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to go back to Ryan Holleran for a last comment. During your time at Fort Hood, you’ve said that you would—you would do physical training, running past the memorial of the Nidal Hasan shooting. That was in 2009. You were there shortly after. You could see how it impacted the community. You’re now working on a report about Fort Hood soldiers and new veterans. What do you find needs to be done, based on the interviews you have done, your own experience at Fort Hood?

RYAN HOLLERAN: Sure. The recommendations that came from this study are extensive. There’s plenty of room to improve, specifically with III Corps in Fort Hood. Some of the more, like, simple suggestions were just a better physician-to-servicemember ratio for mental healthcare, closer monitoring when servicemembers are being prescribed medication, you know, having different accountability measures for servicemembers who are actually looking for help, and trying to reduce that culture of stigma of trying to get help. So, there are some really basic things that could happen.

You know, I did realize that, like, when I was deployed in Iraq and somebody was having a hard time, the first reaction that any physician assistant would have would to be give us—give us drugs and keep us doped up. And their primary goal was to keep us as doped up, or as doped up as was needed, 'til we can get through the deployment. And behavior like that is not looking out for the best interest of the servicemember, it's not looking out for the best interest of the mission, and it’s failing—it’s failing our men and women in uniform.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Malachi Muncy, there at the café, at Under the Hood, there is another vigil tonight, is that right? Can you talk about how people now are talking about these shootings and what needs to be done at Fort Hood?

MALACHI MUNCY: A lot of the conversations that I’m having with the veterans and servicemembers on the ground, I think, beyond, immediately, the immediate safety and support, you know, the conversations happen to be on the safety of friends and loved ones and supporting our communities. I think a lot of the community here is concerned with the stigma that this event brings with it and the light in which many veterans are afraid they may be painted in after something like this, especially those seeking care.

AMY GOODMAN: Your café, Under the Hood, is it like a place of refuge for soldiers, for veterans?

MALACHI MUNCY: I’m sorry, I’m having some audio problems. Could you repeat that?

AMY GOODMAN: I was just asking what—the climate in the café, Under the Hood. I’ve seen these cafés outside different bases. They come—they become a kind of sanctuary, a form of therapy for soldiers and veterans.

MALACHI MUNCY: Yeah, the café—the café has always been a place where we try to create a safe space for people to talk about, you know, whether it be their views on war or the issues that they’re dealing with within the military. Just we’ve always been—tried to be—a safe space for folks to work through those things without worry about being judged or ostracized for what they’re going through or their views. And so, I think we’re continuing to try to be that for folks in the area, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Malachi, I want to thank you for being with us. Malachi Muncy, manager of the Under the Hood Café in Killeen, Texas, since 2012. He served in the Texas Army National Guard from 2003 to 2009, served two deployments in Iraq, from 2004 to 2005 and then again in 2006. I also want to thank Ryan Holleran, who served as an infantryman in the Army from 2010 to '13, deployed to Iraq in 2011, was stationed at Fort Hood for his entire time in the Army when he was not overseas, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, helping to produce this report, which we'll link to on Memorial Day, about soldiers at Fort Hood, that includes recommendations for policy changes there. And again, Aaron Glantz, congratulations on all of your work and winning this prestigious Peabody Award, covering veterans and domestic military issues for The Center for Investigative Reporting. Aaron has covered this issue for more than 10 years, author of three books on the war, most recently, The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.

When we come back, USAID sets up a secret Cuban Twitter program. We will find out what the details are. The Associated Press has done an exposé. Stay with us.

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