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Veterans Feel the Worst Effects of the Current Opioid Epidemic

Right now, the U.S. is battling what has been called "the worst drug crisis in American history." While the present opioid and heroin epidemic has taken its toll on families across the country, veterans are some of those who are at risk of feeling the ultimate effects of the epidemic. For one thing, there is already a higher than normal suicide rate among veterans. Add in chronic pain and an addiction to drugs, and the recipe for disaster only gets worse.

At this moment, according to officials at Veterans Affairs, about 60 percent of veterans who are returning from deployments in the Middle East suffer from chronic pain. About half of all older veterans suffer from chronic pain as well. Only about 30 percent of Americans across the country suffer from chronic pain, so that tells you how disproportionate the number of veterans are who may succumb to an opioid addiction to conquer their pain.

Veterans, no doubt, have it rough. Not only does untreated chronic pain lead to an increased risk of suicide, but taking unregimented opioids can be deadly as well. According to a 2011 study, veterans are doubly likely to succumb to a fatal yet accidental opioid overdose than are non-veterans. Up until recently, veterans were receiving opioid prescriptions regularly in order to treat their chronic pain. Over the past 12 years, opiate prescriptions skyrocketed by 270 percent, according to a 2013 study conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The prescriptions lead to both addictions and fatal overdoses that doubled the national average. For instance, the Department of Veterans Affairs provided veteran Tim Fazio with almost 4,000 oxycodone pills since 2008. This is doubly tragic for the fact that Fazio says he was never in physical pain per se, but that he instead used the pills to dull his survivor's guilt for returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan when many of his friends did not.

The same article discusses paratrooper Jeffrey Waggoner, who was picked up by a government van with intentions of driving him the five hours to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Oregon for the purpose of detoxing him from his addiction to painkillers. The Army had made Waggoner sign a contract promising that he would get sober.

However, medical records show that the hospital instead kept him so drugged that he couldn't function, and then released him for the weekend with 19 prescriptions. Three hours after his release, Waggoner was found dead at 32 years old from an overdose in front of his motel room.

This only lends credence to the idea that doctors are becoming modern-day drug pushers. They get their patients addicted to painkillers, then arm them with enough prescriptions to do some serious damage – which their patients often do. If they don't succumb to a fatal overdose, they have to combat a serious addiction which they developed with help from their doctors. The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that the easy access Waggoner had to the narcotics that ultimately killed him is becoming all too common in this already difficult-to-fight war against opioid addiction.