November 27, 2007
Editor’s Note from Brian Ross: In the third year of a joint project with the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation, six leading graduate school journalism students were again selected to spend the summer working with the ABC News investigative unit.
This year’s project involved an examination of whether, as happened in the wake of the Vietnam War, Iraqi war veterans were turning to drugs as a result of the trauma and pain of war.
The U.S. military maintains the percentage of soldiers abusing drugs is extremely small and has not increased as a result of Iraq.
The students’ assignment was to get the unofficial side of the story from soldiers, young men of their own generation.
Today’s report is the second in a series of five reports.
When Spc. Matthew McKane listens to questions, he tilts his head to one side. When he answers, his speech is plain and matter-of-fact. A boyish grin occasionally creeps across his doughy cheeks and plays at the edges of his mouth, like a kid who got caught sneaking a cookie.
If only it were that simple. As a medic in Iraq, the 22-year-old McKane saw the ravages of war firsthand and found he couldn’t deal with it.
McKane said he turned to self-medication by using drugs to numb the senses, and he was not alone. Now McKane fears he will soon be discharged from the Army because of his drug use. Another medic, Spc. Jeffrey Smith, has already been kicked out for drug use and other misconduct charges and says he is dealing with his psychological trauma without medical or veterans’ benefits. And yet another Army medic, Sgt. James Worster, is dead from a drug overdose in Iraq.
Their stories are not unique. Many soldiers turn to drugs as a way to cope with psychological trauma from the war, according to advocates, health professionals and combat veterans.
“I guess the stress just overpowers your decision making. You just [need] a little bit to get away from reality,” McKane said. “You make stupid decisions.”
McKane is from a small town between Buffalo, N.Y. and Erie, Pa. He said he enlisted in the Army right after high school to do something for his country and help pay for college.
The military took him to Georgia, Texas, Korea and then Arkansas. Bored in Arkansas, McKane volunteered to go to Iraq. He arrived in Baghdad in June 2006 and a day later was working in the emergency room.
His first patient was an elderly Iraqi woman who had been shot in the kneecap by a .50-caliber machine gun that “basically like blew her whole bottom leg out,” McKane said.
McKane’s friend and fellow medic, 26-year-old Jeffrey Smith, described the setting as “complete insanity.”
“We saw everything from gunshot wounds to people missing legs, arms, pieces of their face,” Smith said. “It’s not every day that a doctor sees six or seven people come in all at once and they’ve got four or five legs and arms between the six or seven of them.”
McKane said he felt nauseous during his first shift and had to leave the emergency room. But after a while he said he got used to the carnage.
“[It’s] kind of unfortunate that you have to get used to something like that, but you do,” McKane said.
McKane said his worst day was when a suicide bomber drove a car into a Baghdad orphanage. Dozens of screaming, crying, burned children, some younger than five years old, were rushed to the Combat Support Hospital, or CSH, for treatment.
“You’ll never forget that and just dealing with these poor kids, peeling skin off of them, trying to treat them,” he said.
Smith said to escape from the daily chaos and stress, if even for a short time, many soldiers working in the hospital began to abuse Ambien, Percocet and Prozac, as well as prescription painkillers available on the black market in Baghdad. But eventually even those drugs weren’t enough for some.
On Sept. 18, 2006, McKane said he and fellow medic Sgt. James Worster decided to use propofol, a powerful general anesthetic used to keep patients knocked out while on life support.
“[It was] us just being stupid, and just trying…a different coping mechanism, dealing with stress,” McKane said. “All I remember is we passed out. And I remember waking up like hours later and looking over at my friend, just to see, you know, just to talk to him about the whole thing. And I noticed he wasn’t on his bed anymore, and he was on the floor laying on his back.”
Worster was dead from an overdose of propofol, McKane said.
According to McKane, “All I remember is me standing up there after it happened&getting the glares from everybody in the hospital. I felt like I was never going to make it out of Iraq&I felt the only way to get out was to commit suicide.”
It was Worster’s second tour in Iraq, his widow Brandy Worster, 26, said. In between his deployments, Brandy said her husband saw a psychologist two to three times a week and took an antidepressant medication.
“He had a lot of problems from the first time [in Iraq] he never really got over,” Brandy said. “[He] dealt with things from children that were our son’s age to adults, whether it was Iraqis or other soldiers, probably seeing the worst he’s ever seen.”
Brandy blamed her husband at first, she said, but eventually the blame turned to acceptance and a need to move on. She said she tries to “give good memories” to their son, Trevor, who will be four years old this fall.
“I can understand why soldiers sometimes take something, so [they] don’t have to think about it,” she said. “They’re having to deal with all of this and not have any ways to combat what they are seeing.”
Following Worster’s death, an Army investigation ensued and McKane left the Baghdad emergency room. In October 2006, McKane and Smith returned to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Yet leaving Baghdad did not mean leaving the stress of combat behind. In Iraq, Smith played the guitar while leading a weekly worship, but at home he “wasn’t focused on God” and rarely attended church. The memory of mangled bodies continued to wear on him, he said, and he turned to self-medication with alcohol and drugs.
“I was pretty much [just] wanting to drown my sorrows with alcohol or smoking weed, or something, anything,” Smith said.
Smith admits to also using cocaine and ecstasy — anything that would get him through a few more hours. He became so desperate that he attempted suicide, he said.
“I don’t remember any of it, so, I don’t know if I blacked out, started taking pills,” Smith said. “So [the doctors] thought that I was trying to kill myself, which might be true. But I really don’t remember.”
Smith sought help at Evans U.S. Army Hospital at Fort Carson and eventually was sent to see civilian doctors, he said. Smith said a positive test for cocaine twice and marijuana once, however, led to him being kicked out of the Army.
McKane also had trouble with drugs when he returned to Fort Carson and said he tested positive for cocaine. McKane is currently in prison on misconduct charges. He believes he will soon be dismissed from the Army because of his drug use.
Smith, McKane and more than a dozen current or former Fort Carson soldiers who did speak to ABC News urged the public to be aware of the issues many combat veterans face when they come home.
“Realize that Iraq screwed a lot of us up,” Smith said. “And you really need to help these kids get straight before you just kick them out on the street.”
Additional reporting by Mansi Mehan and David Schneider.
Watch Brian Ross’ exclusive investigation, “Coming Home: Soldiers and Drugs,” Friday on “20/20” at 10 p.m. EDT.