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Ralph Reiland

U.S. death tolls: Addiction vs. Vietnam

| Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams on April 7, 2017, held a news conference to discuss the rising number of fatal drug overdoses. (Trib photo)
Megan Guza | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams on April 7, 2017, held a news conference to discuss the rising number of fatal drug overdoses. (Trib photo)

There were 58,220 fatal U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam conflict, according to the official count in the bureaucratic-sounding Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File of the National Archives' Defense Casualty Analysis System.

The first American soldier killed in the Vietnam War was Air Force T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr., listed by the Department of Defense as dying on June 8, 1956.

The last was Kelton Rena Turner, an 18-year-old Marine killed in action on May 15, 1975, two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon.

In contrast, there will be more drug overdose deaths in the United States this year alone than the 58,220 U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam War's full 19 years.

The highest number of U.S. casualties in a single day in Vietnam was 245, on Jan. 31, 1968. In Allegheny County alone last year, the 613 people who died from drug overdoses amounted to more than double that number.

Similarly, the most lethal month in Vietnam for American forces was about half as deadly as the monthly death toll last year in the U.S. from drug overdoses.

In May 1968, there were 2,415 fatal U.S. casualties in Vietnam, the highest number of deaths in a single month for U.S. forces there.

In contrast, the toll from drug overdoses in the U.S. averaged 4,367 deaths per month in 2015.

“Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015,” reports the American Society for Addictive Medicine (ASAM), a professional organization representing physicians, clinicians and other medical specialists focused on improving the quality of addiction treatment.

“Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015.”

Explains ASAM: “Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illicit drug heroin as well as the licit prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. Opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system to produce pleasurable effects and relieve pain.”

ASAM points to the correlation among prescription pain relievers, addiction and overdoses.

“From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales and substance use disorder treatment admissions related to prescription pain relievers increased in parallel. The overdose death rate in 2008 was nearly four times the 1999 rate; sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were four times those in 1999; and the substance use disorder treatment admission rate in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate.”

Also from ASAM: “In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills. Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers.”

And “94 percent of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were ‘far more expensive and harder to obtain.'”

Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economics emeritus at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur (

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