Sudden Wounded Soldier Death Syndrome

One story that has been news over the last few years that I don’t want to let slip through my fingers is that of the accidental deaths of wounded US soldiers assigned to medical units. Since 2007 there have been at least 32 such deaths. I’m taking my info here from a story in the Air Force Times, Accidental overdoses alarm military officials.

The 30 soldiers and two Marines overdosed while under the care of special Army Warrior Transition Units or the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, created three years ago to tightly focus care and attention on troops suffering from severe physical and psychiatric problems as a result of combat.

In the case of these deaths, either the soldier patient’s heart gives out, or the soldier patient’s breathing stops, during sleep. The cause of these suspicious deaths is not as mysterious as one might at first suppose.

Most of the troops had been prescribed “drug cocktails,” combinations of drugs including painkillers, sleeping pills, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, interviews and records show. In all cases, suicide was ruled out.

An internal review was conducted of the matter. Disturbingly enough, the numbers of soldiers dying has gone up as the numbers of soldiers in the WTUs has gone down, from 12,000 to 900.

I have often written about the dangers of polypharmacy. It is a practice that apparently has caught up with the US military.

The internal review found the biggest risk factor may be putting a soldier on numerous drugs simultaneously, a practice known as polypharmacy. According to an Army analysis from June 2009, about 9 percent of WTU patients — 800 soldiers — were prescribed a combination of drugs that included pain, psychiatric and sleep medications.

New guidelines and rules have been put in place, and the numbers of wounded soldiers dying accidentally is down to 2 this year.

During the past decade — for nearly all of which the U.S. has been at war on two fronts — the military community has seen a dramatic rise in the use of the types of medications linked to the WTU deaths. For example, the military health care system’s prescription orders for painkillers nearly tripled, while those for anti-seizure medications rose 68 percent, according to a recent Military Times analysis of Defense Logistics Agency data.

Many of these patients were soldiers who had received PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) and other psychiatric labels. My expectation is that there will be a seesaw effect, due to the heavy reliance on pharmaceutical products these days, with such deaths due to spike again sometime in the future.

Another question, not broached by this article, is how many people outside of the military might be dying abruptly and unexpectedly from this same sort of thing? Given an average age at death 25 years younger than for the population at large, I suspect the numbers may be way up there for people on the receiving end of the mental health/illness system.