Army surgeon general notes concern about drugs prescribed to wounded soldiers

By Bob Brewin April 27, 2010

The Army's top doctor has concerns about the wide range of drugs, including opiates, prescribed to wounded soldiers in the warrior transition unit at Fort Carson, Colo. But during a news conference on Monday he did not address reports that some soldiers there had become addicted to heroin, as published in The New York Times on April 24.

The Army set up 35 warrior transition units in 2007 in the wake of a controversy about the quality of care for wounded soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. At the time, Army officials and others voiced concern that the exodus of skilled personnel and the rising workload at the facility were putting patients at risk. Warrior transition units were designed to provide managed care for soldiers as they recovered from their injuries and awaited processing to determine whether they would stay in the Army or be discharged.

Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday that he had concerns about the panoply of prescription painkillers prescribed to wounded soldiers and the possibility of overmedication.

Col. Jimmie Keenan, commander of the Evans Army Hospital at Fort Carson, said 26 percent of the nearly 500 soldiers in the facility's warrior transition unit have prescriptions for narcotic painkillers. She noted those drugs are carefully monitored and managed by a pharmacist assigned to the unit -- the only one in the Army to have its own pharmacist.

The Times reported that some soldiers at the facility had become addicted to prescription drugs and turned to heroin to feed their habits.

Schoomaker and Brig. Gen. Gary H. Cheek, assistant surgeon general for warrior care and transition, did not answer reporters' questions about addiction to prescribed or illegal drugs. But Schoomaker acknowledged he had concerns about recreational use of prescription drugs.

He said he did not think the charges in the Times article were fictitious, but quickly added it was "wholly unrepresentative of the totality and the context of what we've done for warrior care."

Keenan said only 5 percent, or about 25, of the soldiers in the Fort Carson unit had been referred to an off-post alcohol and substance abuse program for treatment, and only 6 percent of those referrals involved drugs. She said the hospital monitors drug use with urinalysis and random room inspections.

Schoomaker said the substance abuse that worried him most was alcohol, especially when soldiers use it to cope with combat stress.

The assistant surgeon general said he planned to review the Fort Carson unit in a visit later this week and in the second week of May.

The Army is treating about 9,300 soldiers in warrior transition units nationwide, and Schoomaker said overall the service manages their care "extraordinarily well." But, he said, "We don't always get it right."

He also said the Army inspector general will release a report on warrior transition units soon.