Monday, May 31, 2010

Frontline: The Wounded Platoon

The Wounded Platoon
Frontline (PBS)

Third Platoon, Charlie Company. What happened to them in Iraq, and what happened when they came home...


In The Wounded Platoon, FRONTLINE reveals a military mental health system overwhelmed with soldiers suffering psychological injuries from the surge -- at Fort Carson the rate of PTSD diagnosis has risen 4,000 percent since 2002 -- and the widespread use of prescription psychiatric drugs both at home and in combat. "Everybody was on Ambien, everybody. It was hard to find somebody that wasn't taking Ambien," says the 3rd Platoon's medic, Ryan "Doc" Krebbs. "It helps you sleep, and it also f***s you up. It gets you pretty high." After returning home, Krebbs was also prescribed the antipsychotic medication Seroquel, on which he would purposefully overdose in a suicide attempt. "I thought that my time in this place was over, and I'd already done what I was supposed to do, and I didn't want to live anymore."

Before the Iraq war, American soldiers in combat zones did not take psychiatric medications, but by the time of the surge more than 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. These drugs enable the Army to keep soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder on the battlefield. "What I use medications for is to treat very specific side effects," Army psychiatrist Col. George Brandt tells FRONTLINE. "I don't want somebody in a helplessness mode in a combat environment. I want to make sure I don't have someone with suicidal thoughts where everyone is armed."

Kenny Eastridge, who is now serving time for the murder of Kevin Shields and other crimes, tells FRONTLINE that he sought help for mental health problems from a combat stress center on Forward Operating Base Falcon. "I was having a total mental breakdown. Every day we were getting in battles and never having a break. It seemed like, it was just crazy," he says. "They put me on all kinds of meds, and I was still going out on missions. They had me on Ambien, Remeron, Lexapro, Celexa, all kind of different stuff."

Despite the warnings that patients on these medications should be closely monitored for side effects, Eastridge was sent to a remote combat outpost for weeks at a time with no medical supervision or mental health provision. He says he ran out of medication and was also smoking marijuana and taking Valium. In dramatic footage filmed by other members of the 3rd Platoon, FRONTLINE shows Eastridge behaving erratically, wandering into Iraqi homes, lying in their beds, and trying to hug local women and men.

Fort Carson's hospital remains understaffed with almost a quarter of its psychiatry positions unfilled. The 3rd's battalion, which has been reflagged as the 2-12 Infantry, is about to return home from a year of intense combat in Afghanistan. "We're all wondering what's going to happen," says Colorado Springs psychotherapist Robert Alvarez. "It's a scary thought, you know, what's going to happen in this community. Are we going to have more murders? Are we going to have more suicides, or are we going to have more crime? I think the answer to that is probably yes."

To Watch the Episode

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