The Military's Billion-Dollar Pill Problem

While the military is doling out all kinds of psychiatric drugs, none is more troubling than the atypical antipsychotics – blockbuster drugs with names like Seroquel, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Geodon, and Abilify. According to 2010 Department of Defense records, about 11,000 active-duty troops were on Seroquel. Since 2001, the VA has spent more than $1.5 billion and the Department of Defense more than $88 million on two atypicals alone, Seroquel and Risperdal.

Pharmacologically, atypical antipsychotics are sedatives. At high doses, they tamp down the activity of brain chemicals, including dopamine, histamine, and serotonin, driving a small percentage of users into deep torment. The name for this effect is akathisia. "It's an inner agitation that's often accompanied by a lot of pacing," says Breggin. "The agitation is so horrifying that it commonly causes people to feel suicidal. It's like being tortured from the inside out."

When they don't make you agitated, Breggin says, "these drugs produce an indifference, a lack of feeling for others or oneself." In fact, you could attribute that indifference as the drugs' primary effect. "They suppress empathy, and when you suppress empathy, you create a great chance of violence to other people or yourself." According to Dr. David Healy, an influential author, psychiatrist, and founder of the drug-side-effects database RxISK.org, in clinical trials, 33 patients taking atypical antipsychotics killed themselves, compared with zero patients taking sugar pills.

Sergeant Boone Cutler, who was stationed in Sadr City, doesn't think Seroquel made him suicidal, but he believes it made him agree to take drugs that did make him suicidal. "They give it to guys with PTSD because it makes them compliant," he says of Seroquel. "Then they start giving you benzos in high doses, and that's where things get funky." Cutler, 41, was hospitalized with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and multiple orthopedic issues at Walter Reed in 2006, and later demanded he be taken off his combat cocktail. Today Cutler hosts a radio show called Tipping Point With Boone Cutler, where he hears from vets who are angry about the use of medication for PTSD. "When you take a war fighter who has PTSD and traumatic brain injury, which is very common, and you give them benzodiazepines...it makes you very reactive, and you don't think things through."

During a protest rally this fall in Phoenix, Iraq veteran John Keith, 35, dumped a box of the medications he'd been on in the middle of the street. "I said, 'This is what your tax dollars are paying for.'" Keith's 17-drug cocktail began in 2007 with three or four medications. "At first they give you one or two or three, and you try those for a couple of weeks. You are listening to a doctor say, 'This will help you,' and you are in such a bad place you will take anything. But they keep giving you more and more, and by the end of it, you're on 17 medications."

In a single visit, a VA doctor put Keith on Seroquel and the antidepressants Trazodone and Zoloft, all of which come with suicide warnings. He woke from a blackout to learn he had temporarily lost his mind. "I called my doctor up and said, 'I just threw my friend's furniture off a third-story balcony.' She said, 'Well, just cut the new pills in half.'"

He blacked out, was hospitalized, and when he got out, he says a nurse tried to offer him four tickets to the [Texas] Rangers game, "special tickets where I could meet all the players," he recalls. For a combat veteran who gets a nervous feeling in crowds, the offer was risible.

"I'm like, 'Why would I want to go to a baseball game when I hate being around people?' They've got nobody to say, 'You can't give somebody more than eight drugs.'" Since getting off the drugs and forming an organization to help vets manage their paperwork, Keith has processed more than a thousand veterans' disability claims. He says, "I have never seen a veteran who is or was on less than five medications."