The U.S. Military Needs Its Dexedrine
Recalling the American airborne invasion of Normandy during World War II in his 1962 book Night Drop, Army colonel and combat historian S.L.A. Marshall wrote: "The United States Army is indifferent toward common-sense rules by which the energy of men may be conserved in combat."
Pilots from the Air Force 183rd Fighter Wing felt the reverberations of Marshall's assessment -- which is cited on page 3 of the Navy's official guide for managing fatigue -- last April. According to reports published in Canada, they misidentified a target during a bombing run over Iraq. Meeting with their commanders, they complained they were exhausted, that the "common-sense" rule of 12 hours of rest between missions was being ignored.
In return they got two pieces of advice: Stop whining and visit the flight surgeon for some "go/no-go" pills.
About a week later, two members of the 183rd, Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach, launched a laser-guided bomb on a Canadian training force, killing four and injuring eight.
At a recently concluded Article 32 hearing to determine if the pilots should be court-martialed for manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty, Schmidt and Umbach's attorneys claimed it was the Air Force's dextro-amphetamine (trade name, Dexedrine) tablets, aka speed, that killed the Canadians, not Schmidt and Umbach.
Originally used to treat asthma and other breathing disorders, amphetamines were discovered in the late 19th century. By the 1930s, their ability to stimulate the central nervous system had made them very popular as pep and diet pills. Today they are mostly used to treat narcolepsy, attention deficit disorder in children and, rarely, depression.
Military commanders, football coaches and students have turned to amphetamines for similar reasons: They can keep you fighting long after your body would otherwise give in to sleep.
However, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, serious potential side effects include psychotic behavior, depression, anxiety, fatigue, paranoia, aggression, violent behavior, confusion, insomnia, auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances and delusions. Such side effects long ago banished punch bowls full of Dexedrine from pre-game training tables in football clubhouses.
And those wonderfully accommodating university doctors, who distributed 30 "uppers" to even the most anorexic students for their exam-week "weight problem," are likewise long gone from the dispensaries.
But the Defense Department, which distributed millions of amphetamine tablets to troops during World War II, Vietnam and the Gulf War, soldiers on, insisting that they are not only harmless but beneficial.
In a news conference held in connection with Schmidt and Umbach's Article 32 hearing, Dr. Pete Demitry, an Air Force physician and a pilot, claimed that the "Air Force has used (Dexedrine) safely for 60 years" with "no known speed-related mishaps."
The need for speed, Demitry added "is a life-and-death issue for our military."
The Air Force claims amphetamine use is strictly voluntary. To substantiate this, Air Force spokespeople note that the "informed consent" form signed by pilots who receive Dexedrine mentions the voluntary nature of the program no fewer than seven times. However, the form also notes that the pilot can be grounded for exercising his right not to imbibe.
"To be grounded -- taken off flight status -- is very damaging to any pilot's career," said Maj. Glenn MacDonald, a retired Air Force officer and editor-in-chief of MilitaryCorruption.com. "The USAF was coercing its pilots to possibly become drug addicts and endangering their health.
"The Pentagon spin machine will try and tap dance around that, but it is a damning fact."
Retired Adm. Eugene Carroll, former vice president of the Center for Defense Information, also disputed Demitry's benign view of the drugs. Carroll took prescribed amphetamines for increased alertness during World War II carrier landings, but remains wary about their regular use.
"If the pilots are pushed so hard they have to take these drugs on a regular basis, they are going to get stressed out and have an unsafe result," Carroll said.