Bringing the Battle Back Home:
Linking War and Domestic Violence
Last summer, the military base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina was rocked by a series of brutal killings. In separate incidents, four soldiers murdered their civilian wives, with two of the men committing suicide right after. A fifth woman then murdered her soldier husband. The upshot: a body count of 7 dead in only 43 days.
The US Army Epidemiological Consultation (EPICON) team sent in to investigate found marital problems and a flawed military mental health system to blame; the team recommended increased access to psychological and family counseling for returning soldiers. Case closed.
But dirty little secrets behind these seemingly random acts of violence remain: the possible influence of prescription medication on service members' later destructive acts, and a culture of silence about violence. Both issues have urgent implications for all of us.
One part of the problem is an anti-malarial drug called Lariam, with potential side effects including psychosis, hallucinations, paranoia, aggression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts, all of which can persist for years after the drug has been taken.
Developed by the US Army in 1985 and licensed to the pharmaceutical giant Roche, Lariam has been prescribed to millions of military personnel and travelers, but its dangers have not been properly addressed; key studies into the effects of Lariam have been funded either by the military or by Roche, a fact that clearly invites bias. For example, while Roche claims Lariam causes serious psychiatric side effects in only one out of every 10,000 people, a recent independent study in Great Britain put that figure at around one in 140 instead. And while Roche admitted to receiving thousands of reports of psychological problems associated with Lariam, it only disclosed receiving reports of suicide when internal documents to that effect were leaked.
At least two of the four soldiers who killed their wives at Fort Bragg had taken Lariam, and the drug was blamed when a Canadian veteran attacked his garrison headquarters a few months later. But such outbreaks of violence are usually dismissed as isolated incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and handled on an individual, hushed-up, basis. The alternative - taking a closer look at the role of Lariam in creating violence - would open the gate to billions in lawsuits against the military and Roche, a prospect both would no doubt prefer to avoid.
Another factor is the pressure on service members and their families to keep quiet about domestic abuse. Even though overall rates of domestic violence are significantly higher in the military than in the civilian population (with marital aggression three to five times more likely) victims have relatively fewer options, and service members hesitate to harm their careers by seeking behavioral health care.
In this regard, EPICON's report into the Fort Bragg murders was notable for its exclusions. The report did not recommend mandatory reporting of domestic violence incidents or command notification, and failed to address the critical topic of privacy and confidentiality protocols. The report further dismissed any connection between Lariam and violence, even though EPICON investigators did not even bother to question friends and family of the victims/suspects about the drug, supposedly because of "legal and privacy concerns."
But last Christmas, only months after the initial wave of killings, Fort Bragg was again the scene of tragedy when another service member, Sgt. Marvin Lee Branch, allegedly tried to murder his wife. How the situation was handled is indicative of the larger problem. Restraining orders protecting Carol Branch were dismissed within weeks of the attack, and she complained of receiving very little support: "I'm trying to save my life and I've got to beg (the Army) for help? I can see how those other mothers died. They were trapped." Branch said her husband had a history of abusive behavior, but he became uncontrollably violent upon returning from duty in Afghanistan. An Army spokesman confirmed that soldiers in Sgt. Branch's unit had taken Lariam, but would not confirm whether Branch had as well.
A culture of silence about violence and denial about the effects of war is not limited to the military arena: this same myopia is thrust upon the rest of us every day. We are told Iraq is evil, yet given no information about the suffering of Iraqi people under the debilitating UN sanctions. We are asked to ignore the fact that Afghanistan is seemingly no better off today than before we "rescued" it. We are told to accept a plagiarized joke of a dossier as reason enough to obliterate Iraq. We are asked to shrug off the thousands of body bags now being prepared for our service members.
More to the point - we are being told to swallow the poison of apathy and to accept violence as a way of life.
Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer with a background in clinical psychology. Her work as been featured in publications and websites internationally. Heather can be contacted via her website: http://www.heatherwokusch.com