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Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs

'Disposable Heroes': Veterans Used To Test Suicide-Linked Drugs

An ABC News and Washington Times Investigation Reveals Vets Are Being Recruited for Government Tests on Drugs with Violent Side Effects

June 17, 2008 —

Mentally distressed veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are being recruited for government tests on pharmaceutical drugs linked to suicide and other violent side effects, an investigation by ABC News and The Washington Times has found.

The report will air on Good Morning America and will also appear in The Washington Times on Tuesday. ( click here to read the Washington Times coverage of "Disposable Heroes")

In one of the human experiments, involving the anti-smoking drug Chantix, Veterans Administration doctors waited more than three months before warning veterans about the possible serious side effects, including suicide and neuropsychiatric behavior.

"Lab rat, guinea pig, disposable hero," said former US Army sniper James Elliott in describing how he felt he was betrayed by the Veterans Administration.

Elliott, 38, of suburban Washington, D.C., was recruited, at $30 a month, for the Chantix anti-smoking study three years after being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He served a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq from 2003-2004.

Months after he began taking the drug, Elliott suffered a mental breakdown, experiencing a relapse of Iraq combat nightmares he blames on Chantix.

"They never told me that I was going to be suicidal, that I would cease sleeping. They never told me anything except this will help me quit smoking," Elliott told ABC News and The Washington Times.

On the night of February 5th, after consuming a few beers, Elliott says he "snapped" and left his home with a loaded gun.

His fiancee, Tammy, called police and warned, "He's extremely unstable. He has PTSD."

"Do you think that he is going to shoot or attack the police?" the 911 dispatcher asked.

"I can't be certain. I don't know," she said. ( click here to hear part of Tammy's 911 call)

"He was operating as if he was back in theater, in combat theater," she told ABC News. "And of course, a soldier goes nowhere without a gun."

When police arrived, they found Elliott in the street, with the gun in the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt.

"Are you going to shoot me? Shoot me," Elliott said, according to the police report. (click here to see the police report)

Police used a Taser gun to stun Elliott and placed him under arrest.

It wasn't until three weeks later that the Veterans Administration advised the veterans in the Chantix study that the drug may cause serious side effects, including "anxiety, nervousness, tension, depression, thoughts of suicide, and attempted and completed suicide."

The VA's letter to the veterans, on February 29, 2008, followed three warnings from the FDA and Chantix' maker Pfizer, that were issued on November 20, 2007, January 18, 2008 and February 1, 2008. ( click here to read the FDA warning and click here to read Pfizer's statement on Chantix)

"How this study continued in the face of these difficulties is almost impossible to understand," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Doctors at the Veterans Administration say they acted as quickly as they could.

"This didn't justify an emergency warning at that level," said Dr. Miles McFall, co-administrator of the VA study.

Dr. McFall said there is no proof that Elliott's breakdown was caused by Chantix and he sees no reason to discontinue the study. Some 140 veterans diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder continue to receive Chantix as part of a smoking cessation study.

Dr. McFall says the VA decided to continue the Chantix study because "it would be depriving our veterans of an effective method of treatment to help them stop smoking."

Caplan, one of the country's leading medical ethicists, said he was stunned by the VA's decision to continue the Chantix experiment.

"Why take the group most a risk and keep them going? That doesn't make any sense, once you know the risk is there," he said.

Chantix is one of the drugs being used in an estimated 25 clinical studies using veterans by the VA.

Pfizer maintains that "the benefits of Chantix outweigh the risks" and that it continues to do further studies on the drug.

The FAA has prohibited commercial airline pilots from using Chantix because of its possible side effects.

Re: Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs

Waiting for comments from Duane, Jefffro, and Russ.

Re: Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs

I'm still waiting guys!

Re: Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs

Doc I was stationed at Ft. Meade MD. in 1959. The Army would constantly ask for volunteers to go to Ft Richie, Ft Detrick and Ft Holibird for experiments. They never told us what the experiments were, but they made it sound good. I almost volunteered but I was anxious to get bac to Korea so I put it off and soon got an assignment to the ROK. Later on I found out that the Army was giving the volunteers LSD. A couple of Soldiers committed suicide and many just cracked up. there was a big law suit a few years ago but the Army squelched it after a little while.

Re: Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs

The Bush White House had initially defended the VA's handling of the Chantix experiment.

"The VA is doing everything they can to be mindful of the safety of these veterans in all their programs and try to help them." said Deputy White House Press Secretary Tony Fratto at a briefing on Tuesday after the ABC News report aired.

"This is the Veterans Administration, under wonderful leadership by Secretary Peake, who is interested in the health and safety of these veterans that are under his care, and every other member of that VA system is the same," said Fratto.

In contrast, Secretary Peake said he "wished" the VA had not taken so long to warn veterans being used in the Chantix test.

Re: Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs

Well Doc here I am.

Seen this last night on the Liberal CNN.

As for my own personal I smoke but never asked the VA to help me stop after there suggestions to go to groug seassions.

I have been rerouted through 4 doc's and the med's that I am on right now.I have and hope for the med's now are working in the right order.

As for a judgement call I have none.

But i am sure there is someone to blame but i for one can say with the care the VA has given me even with all the Doc's that has gone from the system. I am just one old grunt who is grateful for there help.

there you have it.

Re: Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs

Keep in mind that the VA is one of the largest Medical care systems involved in Research or Experimental Medicine in the Country. All the participants Knew this from the start of the program and I'm sure all signed wavers or disclaimers. I have no problem with that, if thats what they want to do.

However,,I do have a problem with the VAs Time lag notifying these guys of a problem with the drug. The pharmaceutical company notified the VA of the problem and there was a large Time Delay before the VA put out the word. Why?

Both the Secretary and Under Secretary of the VA are given weekly reports on all programs being run such as this one. They need to make the decision to stop or at least stop enrolling when these warnings come to light. They do not need to check with the White House nor do they need to weigh the Political ramifications. They need to act in the best interests of the patients in the programs. Both Peake and Kussman are Doctors and they shouldn't have to be told in these Life and Death situations. THEY ARE IN CHARGE!

JMO- But if your the head of a Department you need to run it in the Veterans Best Interests!

Re: Veterans used to test suicide linked drugs


You made a good point in your statement about Docs that have left the system. I been Bi-tching about that for years.

To keep the good Docs you need to at least make it worth their wild and pay them comparable to the private sector. Once again let me say, "Mandatory Funding"!

The pay is not the only reason they leave. Many Doctors leave the VA because of the way they have to Write their Diagnoses sheets, many have left because of being called on the Carpet for stating their Medical Opinions in that paperwork. If I have a Doctor I want him or her to have an opinion of their own, not a VA Opinion!

One last thing. Those of us in the VA System are in and established have very little problems outside testing of wait time.

My main and ongoing complaint is with the new guys and the obstacles they must overcome just to get enrolled. I keep saying it should be much easier for them than it was us, but no one seems to be listening.