By Pauline Jelinek - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Feb 15, 2008 9:41:05 EST
There have been at least three accidental drug overdoses and four suicides among soldiers in special units the Army set up last summer to help war-wounded troops, officials said late Thursday.
A team of pharmacists and other military officials met early this week at the Pentagon to look into the deaths in so-called “warrior transition units” — established to give sick, injured and wounded troops coordinated medical care, financial advice, legal help and other services as they attempt to make the transition toward either a return to uniform or back into civilian life.
The Army said officials had determined that among those troops there have been 11 deaths that were not due to natural causes between June and Feb. 5.
That included four suicides, three accidental overdoses of prescribed medications, three deaths still under investigation and one motor vehicle accident, the Army said.
“Army medical and safety professionals continue to remind soldiers and their families of the importance of prescription-drug safety precautions, including following the printed directions and information for each medicine,” the Army said of the overdoses in a statement Thursday.
Noting the death of actor Heath Ledger, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker last week first disclosed the issue of drug overdoses in the 35 special transition units, which care for more than 9,500 soldiers.
“This isn’t restricted to the military, alone, as we all saw the unfortunate death of one of our leading actors recently,” Schoomaker told Pentagon reporters. He made his comments the day after The New York medical examiner announced that Ledger, the 28-year-old “Brokeback Mountain” star, died Jan. 22 from an accidental overdose — the effects of taking several types of painkillers and sedatives.
Schoomaker didn’t have statistics with him at the time and said he didn’t know whether the number of overdoses among soldiers was on the rise. He said the series of deaths in the new units was noticed and getting attention partly because the units concentrate the Army’s temporarily disabled and ill troops into special groups, thus making it possible for leaders to track and tabulate their health issues more closely and carefully than ever before.
He made the comment about overdoses when asked to comment on recent Army suicide figures. Preliminary figures show that, as of last month, officials had confirmed 89 suicides last year among all active duty and activated National Guard and Reserve — and that another 32 deaths were still under investigation. If all are confirmed, the total of 121 would be nearly a 20 percent increase over 2006.
Statistics show accidental overdoses have become a national problem, with the deaths from accidental ingestion of multiple prescription drugs now exceeding deaths from illegal drugs, Schoomaker said.
The transition units are part of deep and numerous changes the Army has made in its medical system since shoddy outpatient housing and bureaucratic delays were exposed last year at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.