The U.S. Army has investigated 56 soldiers in Afghanistan on suspicion of using or distributing heroin, morphine or other opiates during 2010 and 2011, newly obtained data shows. Eight soldiers died of drug overdoses during that time.
While the cases represent just a slice of possible drug use by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, they provide a somber snapshot of the illicit trade in the war zone, including young Afghans peddling heroin, soldiers dying after mixing cocktails of opiates, troops stealing from medical bags and Afghan soldiers and police dealing drugs to their U.S. comrades.
In a country awash with poppy fields that provide up to 90 percent of the world's opium, the U.S. military struggles to keep an eye on its far-flung troops and monitor for substance abuse.
But U.S. Army officials say that while the presence of such readily available opium - the raw ingredient for heroin - is a concern, opiate abuse has not been a pervasive problem for troops in Afghanistan.
"We have seen sporadic cases of it, but we do not see it as a widespread problem, and we have the means to check," said Col. Tom Collins, an Army spokesman.
The data represents only the criminal investigations done by Army Criminal Investigation Command involving soldiers in Afghanistan during those two years. The cases, therefore, are just a piece of the broader drug use statistics released by the Army earlier this year reporting nearly 70,000 drug offenses by roughly 36,000 soldiers between 2006-2011. The number of offenses increased from about 9,400 in 2010 to about 11,200 in 2011.
The overdose totals for the two years, however, are double the number that the Defense Department has reported as drug-related deaths in Afghanistan for the last decade. Defense officials suggested that additional deaths may have been categorized as "other" or were still under investigation when the statistics were submitted.
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