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Apex Recovery Blog

Heroes on Heroin

soldiers walking through a poppy field

One of the last people you would want to be abusing heavy drugs would be someone defending our nation. Yet it’s become apparent that not only are many members of the US military abusing drugs, they’re abusing heroin. A fair amount of evidence points toward this being true. First we’ll hear from a former Navy sailor about how he abused heroin for a year before being turned in. He remains unnamed for protection, but his story sheds a bright light on what could be a major problem not just for the Navy but for the entire American military. Then we’ll turn our attention to a broader look at drugs in the military, and how the abuse rate is higher for vets then citizens. We will conclude with how the path from prescription drugs to heroin is all too often taken. Please do not let anything you are about to read lessen your respect for our troops. These are our modern heroes, the ones who fight for a country that has given us the lives we all live. Please realize that nobody is immune to the spreading disease of drug addiction, and realize that we currently are in the middle of a nationwide heroin epidemic. And if you do hold drug addicts in low regard, then perhaps the following will help to show you how addiction may start with a choice, but can easily become a disease.

Former Sailor’s Heroin Tale

The USS San Diego is an amphibious warfare ship used to dock and transport troops of all sorts. Former Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England said in 2004 when the ship was named that it would “project American power to the far corners of the earth and support the cause of freedom well into the 21st century.” The USS San Diego was commissioned on May 19th, 2012. A little over two years later, the ship was loaded with a Navy crew and began operation as part of the Fifth Fleet. Very recently, one of the members of that crew, a now-former sailor, spoke with NBC San Diego about his deep addiction to heroin, and how he, (and apparently others onboard – discussed later), were abusing the drug nearly every day. “There were days where I would be so high, I would start nodding out at quarters in the morning, falling asleep standing up in front of the leadership, and I was told to just go hit my rack since I couldn’t keep my eyes open. But that was early in the morning, after a good night’s sleep,” said the former sailor. He said it all began with a hernia surgery in 2015. The sailor was given a 5mg Percocet prescription, a total of 12 pills. They were gone after two days. He went back to the hospital to inquire about a refill, and was sent home with 800mg Ibuprofen – a far cry from the opioid strength of Percocet – and advice to stay hydrated.

From Pain Pills to Needles

It turns out that getting a refill of an opioid medication when you’re in the Navy is quite rare. According to Jen Aichelman, pharmacist at Naval Hospital Lemoore in California, whom NBC San Diego also talked to, “If the doctor or provider feels continued treatment of opioids is not indicated or unnecessary, refill requests are usually denied, and non-narcotic medications are recommended instead.” Our sailor knows this all too well. He said that after he was denied a refill, he turned quickly to self-medication. Once he found heroin was available, he became addicted in a short time. He was now a heroin addict, partly due to bad decision making, yes, also because of the power of opioid medications – along with the denial of more when he felt them necessary. He wanted to quit, but couldn’t. The evidence is clear: “I tried quitting several times but with a physically demanding job, I couldn’t afford to not be well enough to work during the day. I actually went to the ship’s doctor and got a check-up, and he gave me depression meds that I didn’t take, of course. I just wanted to cover up getting high. I’m not sure how he didn’t realize something else was wrong, because I was high when I went to see him every time,” said our sailor.

Caught and Clean

His daily heroin abuse continued for an entire year before a companion sailor (and good friend) turned him in to one of the ship supervisors. As said by Navy Media Officer Rebecca Haggard to NBC, linked above, “Navy’s policy on drug abuse is ‘zero tolerance’. Drug abuse and misuse puts lives and missions at risk, undercuts unit readiness and morale, and is inconsistent with our Navy ethos and core values of honor, courage, and commitment.” As expected, the Navy discharged the sailor into a drug abuse rehabilitation program, and he knows he’s better off for it. One last quote from the sailor, this time inspiring: “I’m staying clean because I know that if I don’t, I won’t be able to live a good life. I want more out of life than just a stupid drug. I’ve been clean for a few months now.” This is excellent for the sailor. Yet, it’s not just him, and it’s not just the Navy. Our military faces a sort of silent drug problem, and heroin is as rampant as anything else.

Heroin and the Iraq War

As far back as 2007, when the Iraq War was raging, it was apparently as easy for a US soldier to acquire heroin in Afghanistan as it was to buy a loaf of bread. Filmmaker Shaun McCanna wrote a piece that same year for Salon which is equally as alarming as it is saddening. McCanna himself went to Afghanistan, doing research for a film he was working on, called Drugs and Death at Bagram. While there, he entered a vending area known as the Bagram Bazaar, and within ten minutes someone asked him if he wanted whiskey. McCanna’s reply was, “No, heroin,” and he was immediately brought inside a store. He was asked how much he wanted, and said $30 worth, and he was told it would be about 20 minutes, and then a messenger boy of sorts ran into town and got it for him. If you read the Salon article, it reads more like a movie, and that makes sense. However, that’s what happened in a nutshell. An American civilian on basically vacation was able to score heroin in less than half an hour. Now can you imagine how easy it would have been for the US soldiers who lived there? First of all, Afghanistan provides up to 90% of the global heroin supply, so the troops were already beside the motherlode of heroin. Second of all, $30 worth in Afghanistan translates to hundreds of dollars’ worth here at home. Last of all, the Veterans Administration, better known as the VA, provides more substance abuse services than any other organization on Earth. However, it wasn’t just a decade ago and halfway across the world that military members were abusing heroin.

Heroin and the Military

Let’s start with the fact that our previously discussed sailor also told NBC San Diego that many others on board the ship were abusing heroin. He even became their de facto dealer, since he had connections off the ship. So even though his life was potentially saved, who can say heroin abuse on board the USS San Diego has even stopped? An article published last year on focused on how prescription opioid painkillers can lead to heroin abuse among veterans. It contains some seriously eye-opening information, such as:

  • Active soldiers and inactive veterans take opioid prescription pills “far more frequently than civilians,” likely due to the physical demand of being in the military – especially if combat is seen.
  • In 2011, the American Public Health Association discovered that the rate of fatal drug overdoses among members of the VA is almost twice the national average.
  • Those who are prescribed opioid medications are forty times more likely to become heroin addicts.

For obvious reasons, the exact number of military members who have had heroin abuse problems has never been disclosed. However, in 2012, according to the article, the Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina wrote 46,879 opioid prescriptions to over 18,000 soldiers. That’s just one facility! Not to mention, that’s about two and a half prescriptions per veteran. The reason this is significant information regarding heroin in the military is because of how many heroin addicts begin with opioid medication – about 9 out of 10. Now, remembering that staggering fact, consider that one in three members of the VA received an opioid medication in 2012, an increase of 77% since 2004. It would not be shocking if since ’12 it’s gone up even more. The issue here is the journey from receiving a bottle of legal medicine to being addicted to a street drug. The real issue is how short that journey can be.

From Prescription Pills to the Needle

The University of Buffalo conducted a study that showed 42% of patients in drug rehabilitation for opiates developed the addiction post-surgery from a pain-management drug.  Even more shocking, 92% of this group of post-surgery addicts admitted to abusing illicit drugs such as heroin during the addiction.  Most shocking of all: three-quarters of those studied had doctors who never asked about a history of drug abuse.  Perhaps some better communication would help here.  Opiate-based medication being given to those in pain seems to be a recipe for addiction. The important thing is to be honest with your own self.  Leaving a patient in pain is inhumane, and no doctor will do it.  After a surgery, chances of receiving an opiate-based painkiller are high.  You are then responsible for the safe usage of the drug.  Plenty of prescription drug drop-off sites exist for safe disposal of leftover prescriptions, and a locator for this service can be found here. Risk factors for developing a post-surgery addiction are important to be aware of as well, and according to a study in Anesthesia & Analgesia, the official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society, there are three main risk factors:

  • Patients with prior use/abuse of opiates have a 73% increased chance of developing a post-surgery addiction.
  • Patients who rate themselves as addiction-prone have a 53% increased chance.
  • Patients with symptoms of depression have a 42% increased chance.

In Conclusion

If this still isn’t enough for you, consider the tragic story of Army veteran Aaron Nowiski, who because of heroin will forever be 24 years old. Similarly to our Navy sailor, Nowiski was prescribed Percocet after surgery – in his case Lasik eye surgery. Unable to obtain refills, Nowiski turned to heroin, became addicted, and even successfully hid it from his family. Only when he was arrested for paraphernalia did his family find out. By then it was too late, as he died of an overdose shortly thereafter. His family said he was expressing signs of deep depression when home between his two tours of Iraq. Drugs, especially heroin, are everywhere nowadays, even in the hands of our national heroes. What we need is a sea change. We need to stop seeing addiction as a stigma, start seeing it as a disease, and our government needs to fund its prevention accordingly. We also need to start making more informed decisions on both ends of the prescription pad. Only then can we stop this pervasive infection known as heroin addiction. If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, don’t hesitate to call us. Our trained addiction professionals can guide you to a clean and happy life. Call us today!

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