John Lasker won a Project Censored award for his stories regarding Military Sexual Trauma in 2012. The following is the story of a female veteran from Seattle who is desperately trying to leave Iraq behind and reclaim her past life.


Gena Smith is uncannily like many 30-something hipsters. She is a voracious reader who’s gone through a vampire literature phase. She has spent entire days playing video games with past boyfriends, and she’s a fan of Dungeons and Dragons.
But for several years now Smith has lost her way, all because of one fateful decision she made ten years ago.
Smith joined the military wanting to better herself, seeking college tuition and military security clearances that would further her career.
Now she’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates over 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are dealing with PTSD.
Roughly a year ago the 30-something Smith was living outside Seattle in a new home with her fiancé. But following a recent blunder on the part of the VA, Smith was semi-homeless and living in a hotel in Wyoming near her parent’s home.
This reporter is friends with Smith and has followed her story on and off during the last four years, and by all accounts the ex-soldier’s life was improving.
“Last Christmas I was…baking cookies and painting ornaments,” she said. “(Now) PTSD has ruined the best relationship I’ve ever had.”
Her past as an Army intelligence specialist in Iraq for an all-male infantry unit has seemingly branded her for life, but Smith is also a talented writer. She pens a blog about being a survivor of both war and Military Sexual Trauma or MST. The blog is fittingly titled “Regular Fury.”
What triggered her latest relapse wasn’t Iraq’s recent wave of violence. But the harsh truth that radical Islamists are occupying a nation she gave everything to help (somewhat) democratize certainly isn’t helping. “It’s like a flashback and my worst nightmares all rolled up into one.”
What has truly ignited this downward spiral are the drugs prescribed to her by the VA. Sadly her story mirrors tens-of-thousands of veterans who on top of their PTSD, are now addicted to prescription drugs.
When she returned home in 2007 following a 15-month deployment the VA prescribed, over time, 12 different psychotropic medications to control the onslaught of intrusive memories of combat and nightmares about being raped by a fellow soldier.
Slowly, the right combination guided her to a point where she wouldn’t panic when navigating a crowd, among other anxieties. But soon the pills had a grip on her, and she became dependent. A common problem heard from many veterans suffering from PTSD.
In the aftermath of fighting two wars over a decade the VA has spent billions on prescription drugs seeking to blunt the PTSD epidemic. The VA spent over $700 million on Seroquel alone, an anti-psychotic used to treat PTSD, states
Critics say over-medicating veterans is a quick fix, and like war itself, will leave its own tragic legacy.
Indeed, according to the recent report “No Time to Waste” by Human Rights Watch, an estimated 500,000 veterans chronically use painkillers, and the death rate from opiate overdoes amongst VA patients is double the national average.
Not clear is the number of veterans hooked on psychotropics, which are anti-anxiety meds, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. This is due in part to the US government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, which hasn’t officially designated these drugs as addictive.
Revealing, however, is the amount the military and the VA has spent on anti-depressants alone over the last decade. A massive payday to Big Pharma of $2.7 billion, according to the Austin American Statesman.
Along with an anti-depressant, Smith was taking Clonazepam, an anti-anxiety med officially classified as a “benzodiazepines,” and according to doctors, should only be used short term. Drug abusers call them “benzos” claiming the prescription drug’s potent high is hard to kick because the withdrawals are equal or worse than trying to quit heroin.
Recently, the VA accidentally canceled Smith’s prescriptions causing her life to spiral out of control.
“Here I am (in Wyoming) with a bag full of clothes living out of a hotel, going though two traumatic withdrawals from medications that I should have had but the VA screwed me,” she says. “The VA has turned me into a junkie and they don’t care. After all, they can’t fix me, so I will never have a life anyway.”
Smith is a pioneer to say the least. Not by choice, mind you. Stretched thin fighting two wars, the military needed women to fight.
She was one of the first female soldiers to be ordered out of her co-ed unit and into an all-male infantry unit in a combat zone even though a ban on women in combat was in place. That ban was lifted in 2013 by then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
It was 2006, the height of the Iraq insurgency, and for the next 15 months Smith slept on dusty concrete, engaged the enemy with her M4 rifle, and often spent hours riding in the “hell-hole” (next to the engine) of an armored carrier called a Stryker. The temperature could reach 120 degrees, but the heat was bearable compared to the fear of getting obliterated from IEDs.
One time her commanding officer, during a shoot-out against insurgents, ordered her to run for water, and as she returned, an enemy sniper tried to take her out.
Another time, roughly half way through her deployment, she was jolted awake in the middle of the night and told to race to the command tent. There, they broke the news that her only good friend in the unit, 21-year-old Cpl. Mathew Alexander, who played Dungeons and Dragons with her in the rubble at night, was dead. A Russian freelance photographer had convinced command to send a Stryker into the combat zone. But as they maneuvered through a trash-strewn street, the armored vehicle was destroyed by an IED. Five other soldiers from her brigade perished along with the photographer.
Even through all this, there was one aspect of this living hell that was worse than all the rest. She was one woman amongst all men.
“The sexual harassment was constant during the whole deployment,” she says.
Soon enough she would be raped at night by a male soldier she thought she could trust.
“Once you've accepted that people who were supposed to care about you, or at least be responsible for your safety will rape you and hurt you beyond anything you've ever felt, you can never be the same again,” she says.
When she returned home she once again trusted those who promised to care for her. The VA doctors told her they could end the PTSD.
Seven years later, “they are still telling me that my prognosis is good and I am going to be fine.”
To understand how pervasive prescription drug use is within the military and with veterans, soldiers up until 2012 had the choice of deploying to Afghanistan with a 180-day supply of Seroquel.
Seroquel is also known as “Jail House heroin”. But if the National Institute on Drug Abuse were to designate Seroquel as addictive, it would be a costly blow to the drug’s manufacturer AstraZeneca and its shareholders.
Perhaps what is equally addictive is AstraZeneca’s financial influence on Washington.
From 2002 to 2011, AstraZeneca had 14 lobbying firms give $35 million to Congress and other federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent office of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, according to
During that time the VA’s spending on Seroquel increased more than 770 percent.
Even more disturbing is that Matthew J. Friedman, former executive director of the US Department of Veteran Affairs National Center for PTSD, was on the pay-roll of AstraZeneca in 2009 and publicly promoting Seroquel.
Stan White, a retired assistant principle from West Virginia, has lost two sons to war during the past decade. His eldest son Robert died in combat. His son Andrew made it home, but died suddenly in his sleep. White says Andrew was mentally besieged by Seroquel, which when taken with anti-depressants has been linked to cardiac arrest.
White believes the politicians who sent Robert and Andrew to war are sold-out to AstraZeneca.
Why the military continues to over-prescribe prescription drugs for PTSD is an easy answer, he says.
“Because it’s the cheapest way to deal with the problem,” he says. “What we need is less medication and more peer counseling and professional counseling.”
Hopefully the VA will figure out what is best for Gena Smith and so many other veterans before it is too late.