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Published: Friday, 1/10/2003

`Speeding' into combat

THE revelation that United States military pilots are issued amphetamines to keep them alert on extended combat missions undoubtedly comes as a surprise to most people. In a society in which drug use is a serious problem, this questionable practice ought to be a matter of national concern.

ABC News, reporting for its 20/20 TV series, found that amphetamines “are now standard issue to U.S. Air Force combat pilots to help them stay awake on long combat sorties.”

The dirty little secret might never have become widely known were it not for court martial proceedings against two members of the Illinois Air National Guard accused in a “friendly fire” incident in which a U.S. warplane inadvertently bombed Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last April 17, killing four and wounding eight.

The pilots' military defense lawyers indicate that the sanctioned drug use, which they say is necessary for the seven- to nine-hour missions being flown against Middle East targets, will be an issue in the court martial, set for this month. They say the two were told by their superiors that they would be deemed unfit to fly unless they took the pills.

The Air Force acknowledges the policy, but says use of so-called “go pills” is tightly controlled and was not responsible for the fatal bombing.

The question of liability for the incident must be decided in court, of course, but there is something fundamentally wrong about the Air Force pushing drugs to accomplish its mission.

“In my opinion, if you think you have to take a pill to face something that's tough, you're in the wrong business,” said Gen. Merrill McPeak, who banned the practice in 1992 when he was Air Force chief of staff.

“Speed,” or “uppers,” as amphetamines are known in the vernacular, are listed by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule Two narcotics, the same as cocaine. Commercial airline pilots are prohibited from using them. They impair the judgment of the user and are addictive, according to experts. Why take such a risk in combat, where split-second decision-making is necessary continuously?

We understand the political necessity of flights from far-away friendly countries to conduct military operations in the Middle East. But politics is hardly worth creating a dangerous new class of drug users among our dedicated pilots.



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