WASHINGTON – Overuse of prescription painkillers by Soldiers – as reported recently in the civilian press – may be the result of seemingly unrelenting deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Speaking March 24 before the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee on defense, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. attributed a rise in prescription painkiller use among Soldiers to ongoing conflict.

It’s “part of the cumulative effects of eight and a half years at war,” Casey told legislators. “It’s something – not a pretty thing – something we need to get on the table and deal with.”

A recent article in USA Today said that prescriptions for painkillers to military members have gone up by four times since 2001 – from just under 900,000 in 2001, to nearly 4 million in 2009.

Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh told lawmakers it is possible that Soldiers, like those in the civilian community, end up seeing multiple doctors and are in turn getting multiple prescriptions. He also noted the distinction between such a situation being deliberate or by chance.

In theater, the secretary said, shopping for physicians is limited due to the concentration of Soldiers and the number of doctors available. But still, in theater, “tracking systems are not as reliable as they are here in CONUS,” he said.

The major concern is stateside, McHugh said. In Warrior Transition Units – where the most wounded Soldiers reside, and also where pain management is most needed – the Army has made efforts to more accurately track prescription drugs.

“We have established a program whereby all prescriptions in a WTU go through a single reporting source,” he said. “So we have that opportunity to make sure that multiple prescriptions designed to do the same things are not finding themselves into a particular patient.”

He said he isn’t ready to say how effective the program is now, but that the Army is moving “in the right direction.”

Committee members also expressed interest in the legacy left behind by Future Combat Systems, the Army’s multi-billion-dollar modernization program that was cancelled in June 2009. In place of the vehicles lost under that program – which accounted for the bulk of the program’s cost – the Army is now developing a new ground combat vehicle.

Casey said there is value in what is left of FCS, including equipment in the form of spinouts that will be fielded to Soldiers in 2011, in vehicle research, and in the network that tied FCS together.

The general said he is aware that some of the equipment has performance issues that surfaced in limited user tests, but that the Army won’t be handing out any equipment that isn’t ready for the field.

The legacy of the FCS vehicles will also influence development of the new ground combat vehicle, Casey said. He said the Army knows where the “state of the art” is on vehicle technology because “we pushed it there.”

One of the purposes of the ground combat vehicle is to replace the 1970s-era infantry fighting vehicle, the Bradley.

McHugh also told lawmakers about the significant contributions the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle is having on operations.

“It’s an incredibly important addition to the force structure,” McHugh said, noting the challenges presented by terrain differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.

The secretary also said the MRAP is “key both in terms of carrying the fight to the Taliban and to anti-Afghan forces.” He added that the MRAP all terrain vehicle, or MATV, “is the platform of the moment.”

Legislators also asked Casey and McHugh about the suicide rate among Soldiers.

Casey said young Americans brought into the Army often do not possess the “coping skills to deal with the challenges we’re asking them to deal with.”

A response to that, he said, is the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.

To date, he said, some 380,000 Soldiers have taken the program’s assessment to help determine their strengths and weakness in five key areas of fitness. The Army has also trained some 800 “Master Resilience Trainers.”

“We want to bring mental fitness up to the same level we give physical fitness,” the general said.