Senators Press Pentagon for Answers on Rash of Overdose Deaths

fort-bragg-overdose-letter.jpg Fort Bragg Home To U.S. Army Airborne - Credit: Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images
fort-bragg-overdose-letter.jpg Fort Bragg Home To U.S. Army Airborne - Credit: Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

Congress has finally taken notice of an unprecedented wave of fatalities at Fort Bragg, some 17 months after Rolling Stone first brought attention to an apparent drug crisis at the base.

This morning, a group of five senators led by Sen. Edward Markey demanded answers from the military on the subject of overdose deaths in the armed forces, in a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Lisa Murkowski, John Cornyn, and Martin Heinrich were also signatories to the letter, which posed six questions to the Pentagon, starting with, “How many active military service members overdosed from January 1, 2017 to present?”

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The letter referenced Rolling Stone’s most recent report, published in the September issue, on rising overdose deaths at Fort Bragg, and in the U.S. Army more generally. “In light of this disturbing trend,” the letter reads, “we write seeking a full understanding of the pattern of overdoses.”

Sen. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who has sponsored a number of bills to combat the opioid epidemic, is spearheading the oversight effort. “The recent reports of fatal drug overdoses out of military installations like Fort Bragg are alarming,” Sen. Markey said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “We need answers, and we need solutions.”

“I’m calling on the Department of Defense to account for these deaths,” he continued, “and to give us a plan of action for safeguarding the active-duty service members who keep Americans safe.”

Some of the tough questions he and the other four senators posed to Secretary Austin included:

  • Of fatal overdoses, how many were ruled a suicide? Accidental?

  • What substances were involved in both fatal and non-fatal overdoses?

  • More generally, how many active duty service members had traces of misused prescription medication or illicit drugs in their system at the time of death?

  • What protocol is in place to identify and respond to an uptick in overdoses either generally or at a specific military installation?

  • What is the protocol for informing family in the event of an overdose, including non-fatal overdoses?

Fort Bragg is the Army’s largest and most important facility, the home of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Special Forces, and the Joint Special Operations Command, including the covert Delta Force. According to military records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, a hard-to-believe 105 soldiers assigned to the base died stateside in 2020 and 2021. Aside from suicide, overdose and complications from drug abuse — including steroids — was the leading cause of death.

This data emerged amid increasing awareness of rising rates of drug use — notably of cocaine and steroids — in the Special Operations Forces. On a half dozen occasions since 2014, a Navy SEAL or a Green Beret has pleaded guilty to heavy-duty narcotics charges. And there have been several murders in the last few years around Fort Bragg with apparent links to drug-trafficking by elite soldiers, or distribution networks run by ordinary enlisted men in the 82nd.

The military’s overdose crisis, though most severe at Fort Bragg, affects the entire Army and every other service branch, too. Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told Rolling Stone that recent medical studies showed a “fast and dramatic” rise in the number of fatal overdoses among active-duty military men.

In addition to Rolling Stone’s investigation of Fort Bragg, the senators’ letter to Secretary Austin cited a number of other “alarming reports,” including: evidence of rising overdose deaths among veterans and in military hospitals; an incident in March of this year in which five West Point cadets nearly died from taking fentanyl-laced cocaine; and the June 2021 death of Pfc. Asia Graham, a Fort Bliss soldier who died of an overdose of fentanyl and synthetic cannabinoids after she reported being sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier. These incidents, the letter read, “indicate a problem that may be underreported,” and “are a call for urgent action.”

Bereaved family members welcomed the senators’ efforts towards reform. “It makes me feel great,” said Carole De Nola, when she learned of the letter. Her son, Spc. Ari McGuire, died of a fentanyl overdose at Fort Bragg in August 2019, after he was allegedly introduced to heroin by his platoon sergeant in Afghanistan. In the three years since, De Nola has tried to lobby members of the House of Representatives to investigate opioid abuse in the military, but until now, there hasn’t been any real action at the federal level. To hear that such a high-powered group of senators had taken up the cause was very encouraging. “It’s just wonderful,” she said. “Now no one can look away.”

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