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Wounded Warriors Face New Enemy: Overmedication

Wounded Warriors Face New Enemy: Overmedication

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All Things Considered (NPR), 4:10 PM

ROBERT SIEGEL: When sick or seriously wounded troops return home from combat duty, most are assigned to special units called Wounded Warrior battalions. These units aim to give thousands of soldiers and Marines the month they need to recover.

The Pentagon's inspector general has been looking into how well the Wounded Warrior battalions are working and NPR's Tom Bowman reports that the IG has found a serious problem -- excessive use of prescription drugs.

TOM BOWMAN: David Pennington was a Marine sergeant. He served two tours in Iraq and suffered a traumatic brain injury when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Later, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. So, in 2009, Pennington was assigned to the Wounded Warrior battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Then, after he was prescribed two anti-anxiety medications, something happened to him.

DAVID PENNINGTON: They noticed that I was acting, I guess, strange and I was just kind of out of it.

BOWMAN: Pennington spent a week coming off the medications before his doctors had this to tell him.

PENNINGTON: I shouldn't have been taking both of those medications because they're the same medication. You wouldn't need to take both of those at the same time.

BOWMAN: Pennington's story is not unusual. Pentagon investigators, in a recent report, described a pattern at that Wounded Warrior battalion at Camp Lejeune of overmedication and of Marines addicted to pain medications.

REPRESENTATIVE WALTER JONES (R-NC): We've got a serious problem and we need to find out how we can deal with this problem.

BOWMAN: That's Congressman Walter Jones. He's a Republican from North Carolina. He is the one who pushed for the Pentagon investigation.

JONES: These young men and women that are dependent on this medication, we need more oversight within the military, in my opinion.

BOWMAN: It was not just Camp Lejeune where investigators found problems with overmedication. There were similar problems with the Wounded Warrior battalion at the Army base at Fort Drum, New York.

One Fort Drum staff member told investigators, quote, "the numbers and types of medications that some of the warriors were taking was a scary situation." Another said half the warriors are stoned on psychotropic drugs.

STEPHEN XENAKIS: This has been an issue going back several years.

BOWMAN: Stephen Xenakis is a psychiatrist and a retired Army brigadier general. He says the Army looked into the problem, offered guidelines for doctors prescribing multiple drugs and also suggested alternative treatments.

XENAKIS: They had noticed that a number of the soldiers who had been treated for pain because of their injuries were on multiple medications and then there were problems that they were having overdoses.

BOWMAN: The Army doesn't dispute that there's a problem. Now, it may have finally found a solution at another Wounded Warrior battalion, this one at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. It was there that staff came up with a way to avoid overmedication. It's a monthly report that alerts doctors to patients considered high risk.

The Pentagon investigators report said the system improves oversight. Doctors have more information so they can be alert to drug interactions and other problems.

Congressman Jones says it would make sense for the three dozen other Wounded Warrior battalions to try that approach.

JONES: If something's working at a certain base, then let's try it at other bases.

BOWMAN: That's happening now. The Army says three of its other Wounded Warrior battalions have just started using that new program to guard against overmedication. Other battalions could follow in the coming months.

That's not happening with the Marines. The Navy's Bureau of Medicine, which oversees Marine Corps medical care, has not approved the oversight program. Officials say it's still caught up in the bureaucracy. Congressman Jones says he'll ask the Navy to tell him why.

As for David Pennington, that Marine who had trouble with overmedication --

PENNINGTON: I've minimized the amount of medications I take and I'm doing a lot better than I was.

BOWMAN: He's out of the Marines. He's taking college courses and he's under the care of a civilian doctor.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.


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