Some 700 soldiers departed for Afghanistan in summer 2009, Lt. Col. Burton Shields had a disconcerting visit from an Army investigator.
The agent said several soldiers under Shields’ command at Joint Base Lewis-McChord had admitted to illegal use of steroids. One of the suspected users was a battalion captain.
Shields, who led the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, was skeptical. He questioned whether Army investigators might have mistaken legal dietary supplements for steroids.
But in the days that followed, the captain, as well as a lieutenant, first sergeant and nine other soldiers, admitted using steroids, according to investigative documents that offer a rare look at illegal use of those drugs in the military.
Â Steroid use in the Army has been on the rise amid a prolonged period of warfare. To prepare for — and perform — on combat tours of duty, some soldiers told investigators they turned to steroids to boost their brawn.
Â The latest Defense Department survey — conducted in 2008 — found that 2.5 percent of Army personnel had illegally used steroids within the past 12 months, a jump from three years earlier, when 1.5 percent said they had used these drugs illegally.
The percentage of infantry soldiers taking steroids may be higher than for the overall Army.
Several soldiers from the 4/23 Battalion, who confessed to using steroids, estimated that more than half the unit of some 700 soldiers had sampled steroids, according to investigative documents obtained by The Seattle Times under the federal Freedom of Information Act. One soldier had a scheme for continuing steroid use in Afghanistan through the receipt of mail-order packages that would disguise the drugs in lotion packets.
Anabolic steroids can increase muscle mass and strength.
But to achieve these effects, the steroids are typically taken at much higher levels then those prescribed by doctors. These drugs can raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart and liver disease, and side effects can include mood swings, irritability and increased aggression, which can be a volatile attribute for soldiers headed off to battle.
“The use of steroids is a short-term gain for long-term problems that individuals are going to have, and we cannot tolerate them in any way, shape or form,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, who has taken a leadership role in Army efforts to reduce drug use among soldiers.
Costly testing limited
Soldiers may be tested for steroids when a commander has probable cause to suspect abuse.
But since 2008, only about 300 soldiers have been tested for steroids, according to Army statistics provided by Chiarelli. In contrast, the Army conducts random testing of more than 450,000 soldiers each year for use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other narcotics.
Army officials say the steroid analysis is too expensive to be included in the random drug testing. The Army cost for a steroid urinalysis ranges from $240 to $365 per sample, which compares with a cost as low as $8 per sample for marijuana, according to Army statistics.
Seattle police tip
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, steroid use in Shields’ battalion might have gone undetected if not for a tip in June 2009 from the Seattle Police Department. While investigating illegal gambling, a Seattle undercover detective encountered a battalion soldier who talked about steroid use and distribution. The Seattle police tipped off the Army Criminal Investigative Command, which had agents interview soldiers.
In the documents released to The Seattle Times, the names of battalion soldiers who admitted to using steroids were blacked out because none of the soldiers were convicted of any crimes. The soldiers were subject to other disciplinary actions, including an Article 15 punishment slapped on the captain, who was subject to pay forfeiture and up to 30-day confinement to his quarters.
Shields, the battalion commander, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Maj. Kathleen Turner, a Joint Base Lewis-McChord spokeswoman, said the captain, first lieutenant and first sergeant who used steroids were subject to disciplinary actions and did not deploy to Afghanistan.
Usage an open secret
In the nine years since the 9/11 attacks, Joint Base Lewis-McChord has sent tens of thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, some soldiers say steroid use was no secret.
“No one really hid this,” said Seth Manzel, an Army veteran who served from 2004-05 in Mosul, Iraq, with the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. “I walked into a squad leader’s room one time, and he was with another soldier who had his pants down around his ankle. He had a needle and was injecting that soldier.”anabolic steroids > banned substances > drugs > illegal > public official > steroids > supplements