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America’s Legion

The soldiers and veterans on the front lines of risky psychopharmaceutical treatment

In February 1958, Army Master Sergeant James B. Stanley responded to a posted notice at his base in Fort Knox, Kentucky. The flyer sought volunteers for a military trial to study and improve chemical warfare methods. “Here is your big chance to assist not only the Army, but mankind,” it read. Stanley was an eager recruit and a committed soldier who, at fifteen, lied about his age to enlist. By sixteen, he had seen combat in Korea. By nineteen, he was a tank commander. At twenty-four, Stanley signed up for the trial under the impression he would be testing protective clothing and, more importantly, helping to assist humanity.

Stanley’s testing took place at the Edgewood Arsenal facility in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Edgewood was a dark, disturbing place that once earned distinction as “the largest poison gas factory on earth” and is now considered one of America’s most polluted military bases. Scratchy archival photos from the facility depict faceless officials in bulky gas masks and black rubber gloves. In one scene, soldiers walk through thick plumes of tear gas. In another, they’re firing flame throwers over scarred and muddy ground.

During the tense peace of the Cold War, Edgewood housed bizarre and cruel experiments, some justified by thin intelligence or flimsy allegations of conspiracy. In service of this work, the Army smuggled at least eight former Nazi scientists onto the Edgewood base as part of Operation Paperclip, the covert mission to scoop up Hitler’s best and brightest. One of the programs launched with Nazi help was MK-ULTRA, a psychochemical mind control study formed in reaction to the mistaken belief that the Soviet Union was weaponizing lysergic acid diethylamide, a drug known on the streets as LSD and coded by the military as EA 1729. Between 1955 and 1975, it is estimated that seven thousand servicemembers were exposed to more than 250 chemical agents that included everything from nerve agents like sarin gas and carbonate pesticides to mustard gas, riot control agents, and more. But researchers seemed particularly fascinated with knowing the effects of LSD. In his self-published memoir, former Edgewood scientist Lt. Col. James Kechum remarked on the drug’s “stupefying power” and recalled stumbling upon a black steel barrel at the compound filled with enough LSD to dose several hundred million people.

These efforts were spearheaded by the deranged and brilliant CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb, who is strikingly portrayed in the new Stephen Kinzer book, Poisoner in Chief. “Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people’s minds, and he realized it was a two-part process,” Kinzer recently said on Fresh Air. “First, you had to blast away the existing mind. Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void.”

All of this was unbeknownst to Sergeant Stanley when he arrived at the Edgewood facility in the winter of 1958. Yet it quickly became clear that the trial for which he had volunteered would not proceed as advertised. Every Wednesday over four weeks, Stanley was handed a cup of water secretly infused with LSD and told to drink it. In addition to these dosings, Stanley was injected with a scarlet serum in his right arm. Under this influence, Stanley’s brain fought with itself. He drifted in and out of consciousness and reality. One moment he was on a bed inside Edgewood, being photographed and questioned by scientists. Minutes later, the drug transported him to a serene riverbank, where he watched two people drift along in a canoe.

LSD generally enjoys a warm and fuzzy perception in popular culture. Without LSD, we’re told, the Beatles wouldn’t have recorded “Rubber Soul” and Dock Ellis couldn’t have thrown a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet the unfortunate truth is that it was the CIA’s twisted work on MK-ULTRA that introduced acid to America and helped fuel the often batshit crazy counterculture that came along after the quiet Cold War years of the 1950s. Three of the most prominent advocates of LSD—novelist Ken Kesey, poet Allen Ginsberg, and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter—were all first provided the drug as part of CIA-backed research.

Invitation to a Drugging

Stanley’s acid trips quickly turned violent. At one point, he blacked out, slugged two guards, blasted through a locked door, and threw an iron lung machine across a room. These and other reactions to his druggings haunted him months after he was out of Edgewood. One night, he jolted awake, threw his television across the room, and beat his wife and children. As years passed, his family frayed; he was demoted, then divorced.

The cause of Stanley’s psychotic behavior was a profound mystery until December 10, 1975, when a letter from the Army landed on his West Palm Beach doorstep. In it, the Army solicited his cooperation in a study of long-term effects of LSD on “volunteers” who participated in the 1958 tests. Stanley finally realized what had happened. In effect, the government acknowledged that he had involuntarily participated in “chemical warfare tests.” As many as a thousand people were unwittingly dosed with LSD as part of MK-ULTRA, including CIA scientist Frank Olson who, depending on who you ask, either jumped or was pushed out of a thirteenth-floor hotel window nine days after his drugging.

After receiving the government’s request, Stanley went to the press and called for a Nuremberg-style trial to prosecute the scientists involved in his mistreatment. He also launched a years-long legal battle that landed at the steps of the Supreme Court in the spring of 1987. While his story gained international attention and sympathy, his claims were rejected in a callous decision written by Antonin Scalia that effectively relegated the rights of these soldiers and veterans to a category alongside rats and rabbits. The Court ruled that Stanley’s damages were “incident to service” in the military and therefore had no basis.

Every Wednesday over four weeks, Stanley was handed a cup of water secretly infused with LSD and told to drink it.

In a stinging dissent to the 5-4 ruling, Justice William J. Brennan wrote that the majority decision “disregards the commands of our Constitution, and bows instead to the purported requirements of a different master, military discipline.” “It is important to place the Government’s conduct in historical context,” Brennan wrote. “The medical trials at Nuremberg in 1947 deeply impressed upon the world that experimentation with unknowing human subjects is morally and legally unacceptable. The United States Military Tribunal established the Nuremberg Code as a standard against which to judge German scientists who experimented with human subjects. Its first principle was: ‘The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.’”

“Soldiers ought not to be asked to defend a Constitution indifferent to their essential human dignity,” Brennan concluded. Sandra Day O’Connor joined Brennan’s dissent, also citing the Nuremberg precedent. Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens also opposed the ruling by Justices Scalia, Byron White, William Rehnquist, Harry Blackmun, and Lewis Powell. Stanley reacted to the decision with plain-spoken scorn: “If you run tests on animals you have to answer to the American public,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “If you run tests on soldiers, you don’t have to answer to nobody.”

The Stanley ruling echoed previous cases, most notably Chappell v. Wallace and Feres v. United States, which granted the state broad immunity from wrongdoing. (The decision came before the National Institute of Health, which issued clinical guidance requiring informed consent over scientific experiments.) Still, the 1987 High Court ruling in United States v. Stanley remains an essential legal precedent, formalizing the long-unspoken classification of soldiers as, essentially, expendable. Using this ruling, service members can be beaten, berated, gassed, drugged, tortured, and killed if it serves the interests of the government, the military, or of national security, as defined by those who mandate this treatment.

And its practical legacy lingers: during the 1990 Gulf War, thousands of soldiers were dosed with a potent cocktail of vaccines, including one for anthrax that was boosted with the illegal substance squalene. Scientists later linked this vaccine to the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome, whose symptoms included nausea, memory loss, depression, and severe headaches. More than 85 percent of soldiers reported having an adverse reaction to this vaccine and some suffered serious illnesses. Some family members who lost loved ones from neuro-degenerative diseases have cited Gulf War Syndrome as the cause. More recently, tens of thousands of service members fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were given Mefloquine, an antimalarial pill developed by the military, which has been linked to serious side effects, including brain stem lesions and suicidal behavior.

We tend to think only of battle as the fount of terror in the minds of servicemembers. But the military’s treatment of its soldiers can often spark a separate type of trauma, which is similarly borne in retirement. Burdened by these bad memories, untold veterans seek relief, only to be prescribed new drug concoctions and thrust into a new pharmacological cycle of addiction and self-medication.

Readers may take some comfort in the fact that the CIA is no longer covertly colluding with retired Nazis on mind control experiments in northern Maryland. But this strain of work is alive and well in Northern Virginia, where scientists inside the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are working to create supersoldiers who are immune to PTSD, have no emotional memory, and are fearless in the face of extreme danger and violence.

This work involves developing neuroprosthetics that can alter memory formation, heal soldiers’ mental wounds, and transfer thoughts between soldiers’ brains. In addition, the military is “augmenting” soldiers to fight without sleep and feel less pain on the battlefield. Earlier this summer, a team of scientists announced work developing nanoparticles that can give soldiers night vision when injected in their eyes.

These developments toward “enhanced humans” raise a number of urgent new ethical questions, which retired Air Force Major General Robert Latiff cited in a New York Times article last summer:

If the soldier is using drugs to enhance his cognition or reduce his fear, what is the role of free will? Might a soldier who fears nothing unnecessarily place himself, his unit or innocent bystanders at risk? What about the impact of memory-altering drugs on the soldier’s sense of guilt, which might be important in decisions about unnecessary and superfluous suffering?

Operation Infinite Culpability

No military conflict, Lukasz Kamienski writes in his book Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War, was ever fought sober. Drug use of all sorts—whether illicit or pharmacological, voluntary or compulsory—can be found in some of the world’s earliest skirmishes. The etymology of the word “assassin,” for instance, can be traced back to the drug hashish, which was used by eleventh-century Islamic crusaders who would smoke the psychoactive resin before battle to conjure up heady dreams of paradise. The “happy hour” was first conceived on an American Naval ship in the 1920s. (One thing all conflicts have in common is alcohol, and lots of it.) During World War II, Western soldiers snorted cocaine on the battlefield while Nazis swallowed crystal meth pills. Today, the ISIS drug of choice is Captagon, a stimulant so powerful that bullets don’t always stop its users.

Drug use in the U.S. military wasn’t deeply analyzed until the 1974 release of the seminal government report “The Vietnam Drug User Returns.” In it, author Lee Robins found that a third of soldiers fighting the tail end of the war had used amphetamines or barbiturates. Twenty percent were addicted to heroin and more than 50 percent had smoked marijuana. A common reason for using these drugs, Robins found, was that it made soldiers feel less afraid.

The government was culpable in this drug use. During Vietnam, the Defense Department issued hundreds of millions of sedatives, antipsychotics, stimulants, and neuroleptics to soldiers. Knowing this, the Pentagon offered amnesty and treatment to anyone who admitted they had a drug problem, and sixteen thousand Vietnam veterans raised their hands. Over the next few years, the military’s serious drug problem became more evident. A 1980 government survey found nearly 30 percent of service members had used an illicit drug in the previous month. In some units, the number of recent users hovered around 40 percent.

Any chance that the government would be as compassionate to this next generation of active-duty users as they were to the Vietnam vets was crushed in the spring of 1981. That May, a Marine jet crashed on the USS Nimitz, engulfing the aircraft carrier in a ball of flames. Fourteen people were killed, forty-eight were injured, and eighteen planes were either damaged or destroyed. A subsequent government investigation found that six of the dead men had marijuana in their systems. None of these men were part of the flight crew or contributed in any way to the crash. Yet the incident was deeply embarrassing to military brass, and they responded by launching a war on drugs inside the ranks.

Edgewood was a dark, disturbing place that once earned distinction as “the largest poison gas factory on earth” and is now considered one of America’s most polluted military bases.

In quick succession, leaders launched expansive urinalysis efforts and new punitive measures for drug use. They also created the Pentagon’s Drug Demand Reduction Program (DDRP). Urinalysis was then a fledgling industry and an inexact science. Two years after the Pentagon’s testing efforts ramped up, an audit found the Army and Air Force’s piss tests were wildly inaccurate. More than ten thousand discharged servicemembers were offered their jobs back. Nevertheless, the chiefs at DDRP continued to ramp up their urinalysis efforts. This major government investment led to the commercialization and proliferation of drug testing in America and laid the groundwork for President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Executive Order requiring all federal civilian employees be drug tested.

As decades passed, wars changed names, and new drugs hit the streets. The military’s chief response was to test for these drugs. Until 2012, the Defense Department publicly reported on drug use in its ranks. Their final report indicates the lowest levels of drug use since the Pentagon launched its urinalysis programs. Yet it also included some troubling indicators. For one, the number of servicemembers who tested positive for oxycodone doubled between 2007 and 2011. Over this same period, morphine use sextupled. It’s unclear where addiction stands in the military today, and an inquiry sent to the Pentagon was not answered.

The military, in recent years, has been most aggressive toward marijuana, the drug that makes users mellow. Brass hats are now also looking for signs of CBD use. In a recently produced Department of Defense video on the clear and present dangers of cannabinoids, Staff Sergeant Allison Hahn maintained that “in order to ensure military readiness it is prohibited to ingest products containing or derived from hemp seed or hemp seed oil.”

Meanwhile, the military continues to hand out drugs that amp you up or numb you out. Before long missions, for instance, pilots are given “go pills” (amphetamines) only to then be administered counteractive “no-go pills” (sleeping agents) once they return from a day in the air fight, amped-up and antsy. According to a 2017 RAND report, 45 percent of servicemembers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were prescribed four or more psychotropic medications. Military doctors also supply painkillers. During the height of fighting in Afghanistan, medics popped fentanyl lollipops into the mouths of severely wounded Marines.

Other cause-concerning drugs are not officially prescribed by the military, but are often consumed by its people as part of their efforts to be as fast and strong as the Pentagon requires. These substances include caffeine (in particular, Five-Hour Energy™), cigarettes, alcohol, steroids, diet pills, and laxatives. Yet paradoxically, when mistakes are made, or inhuman acts are perpetrated in the military, officials are quick to blame drugs. This was case in the crash on the USS Nimitz, and after the My Lai massacre, when Senator Thomas Dodd seized on the fact that the soldiers had toked up the night before the bloodshed.

During a 1970 Senate hearing on the massacre, psychiatrist Joel H. Kaplan proclaimed that pot could “cause people to become fearful, paranoid, extremely angry” and has led to “acts of murder, rape and aggravated assault.” Asked for his professional opinion on My Lai, Dr. Kaplan said weed “could have contributed” to the violence if it was clear the soldiers were “chronic pot heads.”

This is quite clearly a reductionist view that clears the Pentagon from its responsibility in bloodshed. But it’s true that drug use plays a role in military violence, allowing soldiers to cope with a range of violent, tragic, and transgressive actions. Such was the case in the spring of 2012, when Staff Sergeant Robert Bales—under the influence of alcohol, sleeping pills, and an anabolic steroid called stanozolol—absconded from his base in southern Afghanistan and allegedly killed sixteen unarmed men, women, and children. The Kandahar Massacre, as it would come to be known, was second in recent reported civilian bloodshed only to My Lai.

In 2015, Bales spoke extensively with GQ about the murders from the Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, where he’s serving a life sentence. His violence was clearly influenced by a warped worldview, and, most likely, trauma and mental illness. Nevertheless, on the night of the killings, the drugs seem to have played a role in allowing Bales to circumvent his sense of self and responsibility. “No conscious person wants war,” Bales said. “No conscious person wants to kill people.”

We Are Legion

Suicide has been an epidemic in the veteran community—twenty veterans kill themselves each day—and it is not easily remedied. For years, this suicide rate has barely budged, despite concerted work from officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) who rank suicide prevention as the agency’s top clinical priority.

The VA’s efforts have been hobbled by a lack of funding. While the Pentagon continues to secure historic budgets from Congress, the VA struggles to get veterans in for treatment, and it is today contending with more than forty-five thousand vacancies in jobs that are essential to effective care. This has contributed to significant burnout among VA mental health counselors.

Under these conditions, the department has resorted to quick fixes, often through prescriptions. A 2013 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that, from 2001 to 2012, VA prescriptions for four of the most common opioids—hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone, and morphine—increased by more than 270 percent. The chief of psychiatry at a VA hospital in Wisconsin was known to dole out narcotics so liberally that he earned the nickname “Candy Man.” These drug proliferations increased anxiety and depression and helped fuel the veteran suicide epidemic. In response to this reporting, the VA ordered changes that led to a 41 percent drop in opioid prescription rates. Of chief concern to many veteran advocates and congressional staffers today are benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety drugs that the VA itself has suggested may worsen PTSD symptoms. Prescription rates for this drug-type remain high; a 2017 report from the Rand Corporation reported that a third of veterans diagnosed with PTSD are prescribed some type of benzo.

Yet broader efforts to stem prescriptions to vets have been met with fierce resistance from Big Pharma. The nation’s largest veterans’ service organizations, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, have supported draft legislation in Congress that would mandate a much higher level of informed consent over various psychotropic drugs. “Veterans who have been prescribed high dose medications to treat their health conditions would like to know whether they have alternatives to pharmacotherapy that are effective and lead to similar or better health care outcomes,” the VFW wrote in testimony supporting this bill. Yet the legislation was effectively killed following opposition from groups backed by Big Pharma, including the American Psychiatric Association.

Stanley reacted with plain-spoken scorn: “If you run tests on animals you have to answer to the American public,” he said. “If you run tests on soldiers, you don’t have to answer to nobody.”

At the same time, President Donald Trump has advocated for a new Johnson & Johnson drug called Spravato, which is a ketamine-based nasal spray for patients with treatment-resistant depression. Spravato was fast-tracked by the Food and Drug Administration under pressure from the Trump administration despite serious concerns over its efficacy and potentially dangerous side effects, including “disconnection from surroundings, sedation, dizziness, and high blood pressure,” according to the Center for Public Integrity. Nor did it dissuade Trump, who demanded the VA order the drug by the “truckloads,” that three individuals died by suicide while taking Spravato during a clinical trial.

Of course, the idea of bringing high-risk patients into these trials is tricky and laden with ethical questions. In a recent email chain between executives at a multinational pharmaceutical company working on a PTSD drug, officials discussed the feasibility of running an FDA trial with high-risk patients. “If a patient in trial committed suicide,” the executive posited, “it would not be the death knell for that drug because FDA is willing to acknowledge the risk of studying these patients.” What is clear is that amid the turmoil of suicides and PTSD among veterans, drug companies are nevertheless offering treatments with serious side effects and questionable efficacy.

The National Library of Medicine currently lists dozens of clinical trials involving veteran patients. The treatments under study include atypical antipsychotics and a number of bizarre medical devices, like the NeuroSky Mindwave, a wearable headset that reads brainwaves. Other substances like MDMA (“ecstasy”) and psilocybin (psychoactive mushrooms) are also being deployed as potential PTSD treatments, and, if any one of these treatments is found to effectively and safely treat the wounds wrought by the Pentagon, this result would be broadly welcomed.

But the Trump administration has also launched efforts to undercut the VA’s highly scientific model for treating veterans exclusively through evidence-based therapies. This work is being run through a commission spearheaded by a Trump pal and former Wisconsin beer mogul named Jake Leinenkugel. This commission has unnerved top psychiatrists in the VA, including Dr. Matthew Friedman, who co-founded the VA’s National Center for PTSD. When I spoke to Friedman last year for a story on the commission, he told me he’s recently seen an increase in “self-proclaimed magicians” who want to partner with the agency.

“The answer is: if it hasn’t been proven, it’s not something the VA should endorse,” Friedman said. “They should live by the same rules other treatments live by; they should be tested in rigorous, randomized clinical trials. That’s the coin of the realm. And if they haven’t done that . . . stay away, baby. Stay away.”

What’s missing in these conversations about treating veteran trauma is the Pentagon’s culpability in causing it. It is now abundantly clear that military service triggers intractable lifelong afflictions among the soldiers we send to the front lines. Conflict has spawned multi-generational drug epidemics for GIs, American and otherwise. Yet these extensive and devastating side effects are never calculated or considered when the Joint Chiefs draft up battle plans.

In a speech to 1962’s graduating class of West Point cadets, General Douglas MacArthur lamented the never-ending influence of war on the soldier. “The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war,” MacArthur said. “But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’”

The words, "LEND YOUR STRONG RIGHT ARM TO YOUR COUNTRY ENLIST NOW," is stamped on an arm making a fist fit for punching.
Library of Congress / H. & C. Graham Ltd., London, S.E., Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, 1915