Fighting the war against exhaustion: Armed forces on Ambien

Fighting the war against exhaustion: Armed forces on Ambien »Play Video
Justin Wilkens

PORTLAND, Ore. – A KATU On Your Side investigation has prompted a congressional probe into the misuse of sleeping pills by armed forces members on sensitive military missions.

Soldiers on combat duty often fight severe fatigue and some turn to medications, like Ambien, to help them rest. But that can have devastating consequences.

As an Air Force Academy graduate, Bend native Justin Wilkens was on his third overseas deployment when he died a year ago this week along with three other servicemen in a U-28 plane crash in Africa.

Their mission was classified, and the cause of the crash is also something of a mystery.

The official investigation found no indication of malfunctions. The report blames "unrecognized spatial distortion."

And mentioned as a possible contributing factor? The powerful prescription sleeping pill Ambien, which the pilot had taken the night before the flight.

It was supposed to help, not hinder. But as the military is only now beginning to measure, deploying troops like Wilkens on a moment's notice wreaks havoc on natural sleep patterns.

"Normally, what we would expect is that individuals with sleep disorders would actually sleep a little bit longer," said Lt. Col. Vincent Mysliwiec, at the Madigan Army Medical Center. "In fact, our soldiers were actually sleeping 5.74 hours per night, which would be classified as short sleep duration."

Researchers at Joint Base Lewis McChord who study soldiers' sleeping problems say the stress of combat can also curtail the ability to rest.

"Even if I am tired, the actually falling asleep part is difficult," said Capt. David Raines, a sleep-study participant.

Three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have certainly done a number on Raines. He volunteered for a sleep study at JBLM, searching for ways to get better rest, snore less, and fight agonizing fatigue.

"Going home after a long day at work, sitting at the red light, I realized for a second or two, I dozed off," Raines said.

The military does give service members Ambien to help regulate their sleep schedules, though it doesn't encourage its long-term use. But troubling reports continue to surface.

In the book "No Easy Day," which is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, former Navy Seal, Matt Bissonnett, described popping a half-dozen pills at a time.

Accounts like that, and the loss of Wilkens last year, prompted KATU to press for an official inquiry into Ambien use among military personnel.

It's a call for change echoed by Wilkens' family, who say they want other servicemen and women to safely get what he didn't: Rest.

After hearing nothing back from the Pentagon about its inquiries, KATU enlisted the aid of Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

He took the matter to the committee, which sent KATU this statement:

"We have inquired about Ambien at the Department of Defense and are waiting to hear back from them as well. We appreciate KATU bringing this important issue to our attention."

If there's something you want the On Your Side investigators to dig into, email them at