New research has led historians to consider America’s war in Vietnam as the first “pharmacological war,” with the level of psychoactive substances distributed to military personnel reaching unprecedented, nearly ubiquitous levels. Today, many of the country’s Vietnam-era veterans struggle with addiction, more so than from any preceding war, leading to calls for the government to take steps to right a wrong.
Despite the lack of research at the time on the implications of long-term amphetamine use, "pep pills" were routinely distributed to men leaving for long-range reconnaissance ambush missions. Standard Army use was 20 mg of dextroamphetamine, an amphetamine derivative twice as strong as common ADHD medicine Adderall, to provide 48 hours of combat readiness. However, reports find that the abuse of amphetamines was rampant and often demanded by superior officers.
One veteran said doses of amphetamine were issued to soldiers "like candies," with no regard to recommended amounts or frequency of administration. Some research existed during the Vietnam era thanks to research by the House Select Committee on Crime which revealed that, between 1966-1969, 225 million tablets of the buffered amphetamines were distributed to soldiers.
One Vietnam-era soldier, Elton Manzione, said that the drugs "gave you a sense of bravado as well as keeping you awake. Every sight and sound was heightened. You were wired into it all and at times you felt really invulnerable."
Not only was amphetamine use ubiquitous during the Vietnam War, but the US military knowingly pushed opioids on soldiers. Troops infiltrating Laos for a four-day mission each received a “medical kit” containing 12 tablets of Darvon (an opiate), 24 tablets of codeine (an opiate) and six tablets of dextroamphetamine. Furthermore, members of the special forces were administered regular steroid injections prior to long and demanding expeditions.
Research shows that while 3.2 percent of soldiers arriving in Vietnam categorized themselves as heavy amphetamine users, after one year of deployment the rate increased 62.5% — although the researchers expect that the real figure was much higher since the methodology required self-reporting by troops, the Atlantic reported.
The US military’s pushing of narcotics not only exacerbated the struggles of troops coming home, but likely played a significant role in driving otherwise honorable soldiers to commit war crimes and atrocities.
Some troops have reported severe irritation as a side effect once amphetamines wore off to the point that they said they "felt like shooting children in the streets."
Finally, the use of pharmaceuticals has been found by researchers to have contributed further to PTSD experienced by Vietnam War soldiers upon returning home. While the pharmaceuticals led to a reduction in combat stress breakdowns by soldiers requiring a medical evacuation in comparison to similar combat situations, the rate of subsequent PTSD among Vietnam-era troops was astronomical. It is estimated that some 1.5 million Vietnam-era troops continue to suffer from PTSD.
Currently, there are estimated to be over 50,000 homeless Vietnam-era veterans. Those veterans have an 108% higher likelihood of substance abuse compared to the baseline civilian population.