A commando was unconscious and seriously ill in a German hospital on Thursday in the first suspected case of an Australian soldier using illicit narcotics in Afghanistan, an official said.
No Australian soldier has been suspected of abusing opiates, which are rife in Afghanistan, since Australia first committed troops to the Central Asian country in 2001, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, Australian Defence Force Chief, told reporters in Canberra.
The soldier, a private, was found unconscious in his room at the Australian base at Tarin Kowt on Friday last week and had been flown to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl in Germany, Houston said.
White powder thought to be an opiate and a bottle of unidentified pills were found in his room, Houston said.
The powder was being analyzed to identify it and to determine if it had contributed to the soldier’s condition, he said.
It would appear at this early stage that the use of illicit drugs may be involved in this incident, Houston said.
All other commandos in his unit had since been tested for prohibited drugs including narcotics.
The results of those tests were not yet known, he said.
Houston said tests for prohibited substances other than opiates had been conducted on Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in the past where there had been suspicions of drug abuse.
I’ve never had any concern up to now about narcotics, Houston said.
We haven’t had a single incident over the whole time we’ve been in Afghanistan.
A military inquiry headed by a civilian lawyer would be established to investigate what had happened, the effectiveness of the Australian military’s drug testing regime and the extent of drug abuse in the field.
Defence Minister John Faulkner on Thursday also requested a report on the availability of mental health services for Australian troops in Afghanistan.
Australia is the largest contributor to the U.S.-led alliance in Afghanistan outside NATO, with 1,550 troops currently deployed there.
Most of them, including the sick commando, are based in the restive Uruzgan province.
Houston described the soldier as "an experienced commando" who remained unconscious with an uncertain prognosis. Houston declined to identify the soldier for privacy reasons.
The soldier joined the Australian army in 2004 and was on his third six-month tour with a commando unit in Afghanistan, where 11 Australian soldiers have been killed in action, a Defence Department statement said.
He was found by colleagues who could not wake him and administered first aid.
He was flown to U.S. military hospitals in Kandahar then Bagram where his condition was stabilized, the statement said.
He was evacuated from Afghanistan on Tuesday to Germany, and his parents and girlfriend flew from Australia to visit him.
The Australian military has a zero-tolerance policy on illicit drug use.
Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the world’s opium, the main ingredient in heroin.
Afghanistan’s illegal opium poppy crops are a multimillion dollar business for the Taliban.
Thursday, June 3, 2010