Yet Another Illegal Battlefield Drug
December 1, 2010: The U.S. Army is facing another, and rather poignant, drug menace. It seems a growing number of infantry troops are using steroids, to help them build muscle mass, so that they can better handle the loads they have to carry in combat. For most of these troops, the additional muscle is seen as a matter of life and death.
But there are short term (mood swings, especially irritability and increased aggressiveness) and long term (hypertension, damage to the heart or liver) risks from steroid use. Even so, many troops accept the risks, in order to obtain a little more speed in combat. Speed is often the key to survival out there. All this is nothing new. Troops have been taking ability enhancing drugs for nearly a century. Amphetamines have been the most popular, as sheer fatigue has long been a major, and often fatal, problem on the battlefield.
But dealing with stress is nearly as big a problem. An effective anti-stress pill would be welcomed on the battlefield, for it would increase chances of survival in an often fatal occupation.
The demand for steroids arose because the latest generation of body armor, and the need to carry around lots of ammo and water, meant troops were spending many hours running around, carrying lots of weight. Moreover, most of the combat in Iraq was urban, meaning a lot of running up stairs, and jumping through windows. In Afghanistan you get the same conditions, but using lots of hills. What military physical conditioning experts are also noting are the changes in training among professional athletes.
The military has long taken their physical training clues from what professional, and college, athletes are doing. And what those well prepared civilians are doing are exercises to make people most ready for exactly what they have to do. This not only makes the troops more capable in combat, but reduces injuries from sprains, pulled muscles and the like.
The army doesn't want to add steroid testing to its current random drug test program, because of the high cost. But the brass do know there are a growing number of steroid users. A troop survey in 2005 showed 1.5 percent used, while another survey three years later showed 2.5 percent. Steroid use, and getting buff for combat, has grown quickly in the last two years. In some infantry battalions, as many as half the troops are apparently using steroids. There's no easy, or cheap, solution to this problem.
Every time there's a war, things happen that, in hindsight, should have been so obvious. Case in point is the load infantry are carrying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subtle changes in tactics because of the introduction of new weapons and equipment. Turns out that the troops were not in the best physical shape for the loads they are carrying, and the work they do. The physical conditioning the troops have been getting for years needs to be changed. It's a different kind of war, and the troops, despite all the running and weight work they do, are not in the best shape for it.
Thus the interest in developing new physical training programs that will aid guys who have to hump over a hundred pounds of body armor, weapons and equipment up several flights of stairs, dive over furniture, or quickly hit the ground during a firefight. The U.S. Marine Corps and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) are already working on such programs, and so is the army, if only to discourage the perceived need to use steroids.
Three soldiers on steroids given marching orders
MORE Australian soldiers have been sent home in disgrace from Afghanistan after being caught using drugs.
The Defence Department admitted last night that three soldiers had tested positive for anabolic steroids and had either been sacked or were in the process of being sacked, bringing the numbers of Diggers caught abusing the drug in Afghanistan this year to seven.
The Herald revealed this year that four elite special forces soldiers had been caught using steroids in the first two or three months of the year, were sent back to Australia and asked to show why they should not be sacked.
Steroids are used to increase body mass and strength, particularly in the upper body. They have been linked to side effects such as aggression and mania, known as ''roid rage'', and physical problems such as high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease.
''Defence conducts routine drug testing, including of personnel on operations. In subsequent routine drug tests, three ADF personnel serving in Afghanistan have tested positive to steroids,'' a spokesman said last night.
''One member has been discharged from Defence and two members are in the process of being discharged from Defence.''
In May a commando apparently overdosed in his quarters at the Australian base in the southern province of Oruzgan. After that the chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, said pills and a white powder, believed to be an opiate, had been found in the soldier's quarters.
The commando was flown to a United States military hospital in Germany and is now back on limited duties with his regiment in Australia.
The investigation into the incident, now into its sixth month, has been widened to include other agencies. Although defence has refused to identify those agencies, the Australian Federal Police and customs referred the Herald's inquiries about the investigation back to defence.
After the commando's apparent overdose, 300 Australian special forces soldiers were also drug tested and subsequently cleared.
The Department of Defence spokesman repeated last night that the investigation into the apparent overdose of the commando - referred to as Private D - was continuing and that it would be inappropriate to comment.
In May Air Chief Marshal Houston said that until then there had been no indication of illicit narcotic use among Australian troops in Afghanistan. But he admitted that some troops had been disciplined for abusing anabolic steroids.
Australia has 1550 troops in Afghanistan, predominantly performing two roles: mentoring Afghan National Army troops and fighting Taliban forces as part of the Special Operations Task Group, which includes commandos and Special Air Service troopers.
Defence sources said Australian troops were confiscating ''tonnes, not kilograms'' of opium poppy resin in Oruzgan province, which is one of the biggest opium-producing regions in the country.