Why are soldiers dying in their sleep?

April 26, 2012 2:59:39 PM PDT
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created heartbreak and anger for Stan and Shirley White.

"There's still a lot of raw emotion there. We've lost two sons," explained Shirley.

First, the Charleston, West Virginia couple's first son Bob - a Fort Bragg paratrooper - was killed in Afghanistan.

"There's nothing like the pain of losing a child," said Shirley.

Then, son Andrew survived his deployment to Iraq with Camp Lejeune Marines - only to die in his bedroom.

"It was like a double-whammy all over again, twice the pain," said Shirley.

The couple have kept Andrew's bedroom as it was the day he died as a memorial to him.

"He did a lot of things in 23 years," said Stan.

In the room are his Eagle Scout certificate, an award from his days in the Junior ROTC, his Marine medals, and pictures from his time in Iraq. But the walls do not tell the story of Andrew's psychological trauma from nine months in Iraq.

"He died because of his PTSD, because of what he saw in the war zone. The medication is what killed him. We consider him as being a casualty of war," Stan offered.

The medical examiner ruled Andrew died at the age of 23 from "fatal drug intoxication." The report says he was taking prescribed and non-prescribed medication at the time, which could've been a factor in his death.

The Whites told ABC11 that they believe Andrew died from over-medication under the care of government and private doctors.

"We call it the lethal cocktail. It's antidepressants, antipsychotics and analgesics. It's just overloading, and your body can't take it," Stan explained.

The Whites said Andrew was taking Seroquel, Klonopin, and Paxil. They still have the pills prescribed by Veteran's Administration doctors to treat Andrew's post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Was there any chance he was over-medicating himself?" we asked the Whites.

"No. He was taking exactly what the VA told him to take," said Shirley.

"You were giving him the medication every day?" we asked.

"I was giving him the medication," she responded.

"He made that choice to trust the VA and that trust cost him his life," she continued.

Andrew White is not alone. He is one of the "Charleston Four"- four war veterans all taking similar medication for PTSD who all died in their sleep within weeks of each other in the same part of West Virginia in 2008.            

After hearing about the Charleston Four, a San Diego neurologist began investigating. With veteran advocates, he created a list of 300 military deaths linked to sudden cardiac arrest, which he compiled from news reports. 

He did not have access to medical files.

"I came to the conclusion that these were somehow unique, unusual deaths," said Dr. Fred Baughman. "Young men in their 20s don't just die in their sleep."

Baughman explained the type and quantity of drugs can lead to a deadly outcome.

"Specifically, it points to the antipsychotics and the antidepressants that they are on - which are known to cause sudden cardiac deaths," he said.

John and Mary Nahas are North Carolina parents who say they came close to losing their son Michael after he returned from Iraq.

"Look at all the drugs they had him on," Mary said, showing ABC11 cameras a list that includes Oxycodone, Xanax, Percocet, Klonopin, Celexa, Lunesta, and Ambien.

"I ran the list of medications by my niece - who was a psychologist in a psychiatric hospital - and she said: 'Oh Mary, that's a cocktail of death, they're trying to kill him,'" said Mary.

"When they returned our son to us, he looked like a concentration camp victim. He was thin. He was gray in color," she continued.

The Nahas say the medication prescribed for their son's PTSD made him attempt suicide.

"We noticed a decline in his personality from the drugs. They change cognition and behavior. We noticed anger, just couldn't think straight," said Mary. "The drugs had messed him up so badly."

She described what happened.

"And he was so confused that ... he jabbed - in his arms - two IVs, and bled out completely in the bathtub - was drawing in his blood on the wall," she said.

In March, the Army Surgeon General testified before a Senate subcommittee about soldiers getting multiple drug prescriptions. She said her office continues to look into the issue.

The ABC11 I-Team obtained a copy of a Department of Defense memo sent out to all branches of the military

It specifically cautions medical providers about the use of some antipsychotics for anxiety disorders - including PTSD or sleep disturbances - especially given the risk of cardiac effects.

And, it says: "providers should offer the lowest risk medication and non-medication options..."

For Stan and Shirley White, the Army Surgeon General's focus on prescription drugs comes too late.

"We still have the anger. We still have the disappointment that our government could do this," said Shirley.

Now, they are on a crusade.

"It's an epidemic and it has to stop," said Stan.

The retired teachers have been to Washington four times - talking to members of Congress, the VA, and the FDA.

"I want to see a Congressional investigation into why these kids are being overmedicated," Stan explained.

Both sets of parents want to prevent other military families from experiencing the pain they've endured.

The VA investigated Andrew White's death and ruled his doctors met "the community standards of care" - meaning the government believes it did nothing wrong.

The Whites want government doctors to scale back on medication and find other therapies like counseling and outdoor activities.

The I-Team contacted the Army Surgeon General who told us her office is working towards doing just that - as well as better communication between soldiers, their families, commanders and health care specialists.

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