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Pfc. Gary Cooper, left, and Pfc. Stephen Wanser stand at Camp Casey in front of Soyo Mountain — a place they used to go while under the influence of dextromethorphan, or DXM, which is found in over-the-counter cold medicines. In large doses, the drug is dissociative and can produce hallucinations.

Pfc. Gary Cooper, left, and Pfc. Stephen Wanser stand at Camp Casey in front of Soyo Mountain — a place they used to go while under the influence of dextromethorphan, or DXM, which is found in over-the-counter cold medicines. In large doses, the drug is dissociative and can produce hallucinations. (Erik Slavin / S&S)

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — Pfc. Stephen Wanser’s typical Saturday breakfasts were the same as his Friday night dinners: 16 Coricidin Cough and Cold pills, water or soda optional.

Wanser and his roommate, Pfc. Gary Cooper, 22, remained in a hallucinatory daze most of the weekend before crashing on Sundays.

Even when Wanser thought he nearly choked to death after taking the pills — a sign from God, the deeply religious 24-year-old believed — it was only enough to keep him off the drug for a month.

Coricidin contains more dextromethorphan, also known as DM or DXM, than most cold medicines.

In small doses, DXM relieves a cough. But large doses produce abnormally elevated moods and hallucinations typically associated with drugs like PCP and LSD.

Although there are few, if any, military studies on dextromethorphan abuse, medical and 2007 sales data from Camp Casey’s post exchange stores attest to the drug’s popularity.

In a place where all soldiers receive free health care and prescriptions, Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores sold as many as 300 boxes of Coricidin and its generic equivalent in one week, according to a paper presented at a national medical conference in May.

Area I stores restricted Coricidin, also known as "Triple C," and its generic equivalent last October and soon pulled the pills from their stock entirely at the urging of Camp Casey doctors.

Prior to that, at least six DXM overdoses came through the emergency room within a year. The doctors say they think that’s just a fraction of the abuse that’s going on.

A search for spirituality

Wanser and Cooper say they want to tell their story of abuse in the hope it will prevent others from taking the same path.

It began early last year, when Wanser arrived in South Korea after a violent tour as a truck convoy gunner in Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment, 75th Fires Brigade out of Fort Sill, Okla.

Wanser remembers finding information about the drug on the Internet, though he can’t remember the first time he got high. He and Cooper would pick up the drugs at the post exchange, return to their barracks and take them. And wait.

"Two hours later, you throw up," Wanser said. "But you’re still tripping at that point. A couple hours later, we would split another box. We would basically be tripping all night."

They would sleep in a half-conscious daze.

"You don’t want food at all the next day," Wanser continued. "It seems like food is for other creatures than you."

They would be tired for the next couple of days afterward. It seemed like mood swings to those around them.

"Everyone else in our barracks thought we were weird as [expletive]," Wanser said.

Sometimes they would go hiking around Camp Casey’s nearby mountains after popping the pills.

They would often read the Bible while tripping, discussing Solomon, heaven, hell and their place in the world.

Wanser said he felt closer to God during those times.

But he acknowledges that taking potentially fatal doses of drugs is a bad way to get there.

He experienced hyper-religiosity, a relatively common phenomenon among mania-prone users of psychedelic drugs, said Area I support psychiatrist Maj. Christopher Perry.

"As people become more manic and grandiose in their thinking, religion plays a larger role in their life," Perry explains.

Perry said he has had patients addicted to mind-altering substances who thought they were Jesus, Elijah, St. Paul or merely someone with a special hot line to God.

Wanser never had such delusions and had always been religious, but he never felt the urge to spread his views until he began taking Triple C.

A little too smart

Wanser says he nearly choked to death after a pill came back up into his throat over the Memorial Day 2007 weekend. Cooper videotaped the incident (see accompanying story and go to Stripes.com to see the video).

But after a brief break their drug use continued and by August, the pair were mixing drugs with alcohol.

The drugs, combined with other experiences, led them to challenge their superiors multiple times.

"You feel like you know more than they do," Cooper said. "[Triple C] makes you feel like you’re smarter."

In one instance while coming down from his trip, Wanser began waving a knife during an early morning alert because he felt it wasn’t realistic enough, thanks to his Iraq experiences.

Wanser talked his way out of punishment that time, he says.

It was a 9 a.m. encounter in August with two majors at the Thunder Inn dining facility that signaled rock bottom for Wanser.

Cooper and Wanser had both taken drugs and drunk vodka. While they waited for food, Wanser began questioning the majors’ right to order him around, using a Scripture from Corinthians about humility and others on pride to bolster his argument.

The majors found a sergeant, who ordered Wanser back to his room to cool off, but Wanser left for the post exchange after an hour to get more liquor.

When another sergeant who spotted him told him to go back to his room, Wanser demanded to see his first sergeant and then his battery commander, Capt. David O’Leary.

When O’Leary threatened him with Article 15 punishment, Wanser questioned O’Leary’s right to have control over his life.

"I pretty much stopped listening at that point," said O’Leary, who was ready to kick Wanser out of the Army.

After Wanser’s blood test came back showing extreme intoxication, he was referred to the Army’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program.

Back to reality

Wanser, who was demoted from specialist to private first class for his behavior, didn’t tell Perry for months about his drug use.

Since the symptoms of cold medicine abuse can mirror personality disorders, Wanser took anti-psychotic medication for months before admitting his drug use to Perry. The medication caused Wanser to gain about 20 pounds.

Wanser spent those months with the threat of a discharge hanging over him.

Cooper, however, has never faced punishment, because he never did anything illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Article 134 bars soldiers from intoxication on drugs or alcohol, but not while they are in their barracks. While the pair said they know their actions left them unprepared in the event of war, they insisted that they never used the drugs while on duty.

"The article would apply only to duty," said Capt. Mike Eaton, Camp Casey judge advocate.

Nor would wrongful use of a controlled substance apply, Eaton said.

It’s possible a soldier could be tried under related federal code, but Eaton says it would be a tough case to win.

Despite the lack of punishment, Cooper says he has learned from the experience and won’t touch DXM again.

Once he was clean, Wanser impressed O’Leary by taking full responsibility for his actions.

His statement following his Article 15 punishment was brief; he said he deserved to be punished.

He regularly attended counseling and put in a hard day’s work.

"It got to the point where his job performance began to shine through," O’Leary said. "The same guys calling for him to be kicked out … were the same guys who said, ‘you might want to reconsider.’  "

Wanser will remain in the Army, he says. He has no desire to use DXM again. Whenever he passes cold medicine in a store, he shivers and feels nauseated.

"It should not be on the shelves anywhere," Wanser said. "Ultimately, it will destroy your life."

Despite choking, drug’s grip was still powerful

Pfc. Stephen Wanser was playing "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" on Memorial Day weekend in his room when Wanser had what he calls an epiphany.

His roommate, Pfc. Gary Cooper, videotaped the moment, which he commonly did while tripping. Go to legacy.stripes.com to see the video.

Wanser says he wasn’t high yet from that day’s "Triple C" — Cordicin Cough and Cold. But at that moment, the song in the video game talked about choking to death.

Wanser says he froze for about 10 seconds. In a matter-of-fact voice, he says two words: "I’m dying."

A few seconds later, Wanser begins choking. A pill has come back up into his throat and he pounds on his throat with his fist and then chops himself to set it free — potentially crushing his own windpipe.

"It was quick," Cooper said. "One minute he was playing the game, the next he was hitting his throat as hard as he can."

Wanser says he thinks the pill was dislodged before Cooper performed the Heimlich maneuver on him. On the tape, Wanser sounds shaken for a few minutes. Then he and Cooper go back to playing their video game.

Wanser believed the incident was a warning from God. He gave up the drugs for a whole month.

"That’s a long time in Triple C world," he said.

— Erik Slavin

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