- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2008

James Elliott thought his recurring nightmares of exploding bombs, dogs eating corpses, a child’s head blown off its body and other war horrors from his Iraq tour had ended in 2004 when he returned to his home in Silver Spring.

The Army veteran sniper was earning high grades in college and got engaged to be married. His post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had disappeared.

He even signed up for a Veterans Affairs experiment to kick his habit of nearly three packs of cigarettes a day using the drug Chantix, and was succeeding.

But after two weeks on the drug, his night terrors returned with a vengeance, and his fiancee built a wall of stuffed animals across their bed to serve as a security buffer.

“I just thought she really liked stuffed animals,” said Mr. Elliott, 38.

Within a few weeks of his taking Chantix, VA officials learned the drug was causing serious side effects across the nation, including psychotic behavior, suicides and suicidal tendencies. But the agency took three months to get that warning through its system and to the veterans in the study.

Night after night, Mr. Elliott violently thrashed against the plush toys in his sleep, shouting for air strikes, replaying the horror of watching friends bleed to death.

“This went on for 2 1/2 months. It just got worse night by night,” Mr. Elliott said.

He stopped eating and drank massive amounts of coffee or Mountain Dew to stay awake. Then the nightmares turned to hallucinations. He saw strangers in the neighborhood wearing suicide vests and was certain that nearby cars were tagged with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“They couldn’t come and get me if I was awake and waiting for them,” Mr. Elliott said.

His fiancee called the police on Feb. 5, concerned he might hurt himself. She called police a second time when she discovered his pistol was missing from its holster. As a skilled marksman, he was an even bigger threat to the police, she thought.

“I don’t want him to hurt anybody,” she told the 911 dispatcher, but added “he has talked in the past about killing himself.”

After spending several days in jail and weeks in a veterans hospital, Mr. Elliott now says it was a miracle the police did not kill him. Instead, officers used a Taser to subdue him. In his pocket, they found a loaded .40-caliber pistol with one live round in the chamber.

In an interview with The Washington Times weeks after he was arrested, Mr. Elliott pondered his actions that lead to his being Tasered - “why did I put the gun in my pants, suicide by cops?” he asked.

According to the police report, Mr. Elliott shouted, “Are you going to shoot me? Shoot me!” after the officers ordered him to show his hands. As Mr. Elliott was being transported to a nearby police station, he asked the cops why they did not shoot him.

“I would have shot me,” he said.

Mr. Elliott stopped taking the drug and received several weeks of treatment, blaming the drug for his outburst. He pleaded guilty to criminal charges resulting from the confrontation with police and was given probation this month.

Though hallucinations and suicidal tendencies have been declared potential side effects of Chantix, VA officials involved in the study are unwilling to blame the drug for Mr. Elliott’s breakdown.

Dr. Miles McFall, director of the VA’s programs for PTSD sufferers, told The Times and ABC News during a joint investigation that “we don’t know that Chantix was the cause of this, first of all. And it’s presumed that that’s the case. We don’t know that to be a fact.”

“Suicidality and aggressive impulses [are] part and parcel of their disorder,” Dr. McFall said of PTSD patients.

After Mr. Elliott’s breakdown, he and his fiancee reached out for help to retired Marine Lt. Col. Roger Charles, editor of DefenseWatch, the Internet newsmagazine of Soldiers For The Truth (SFTT), www.sftt.org, a nonprofit educational foundation founded by the late Col. David H. Hackworth and his wife, Eilhys England, to act as an advocate for front-line troops.

“This idea that you would take people that already are diagnosed with mental issues and then give them a drug that appears early on to have some likelihood of exacerbating such issues. I understand why they want vets to quit smoking - for financial, health and moral issues - but I don’t understand why they would give it to men and women struggling for mental normality,” Col. Charles said.

“For veterans who serve their country, and in doing so, picked up mental issues, I would think you would go the extra mile to keep them from jeopardizing their ability to function normally,” Col. Charles said.

Mr. Elliott says “the carrot they dangled in front of my face” to join the study was $30 a month for the three-year program, which he initially began with the use of nicotine patches and chewing gum.

“I knew it was a research project, but I also needed the money,” Mr. Elliott said.

Veterans are now warned that Chantix “may make current psychiatric symptoms that you are experiencing worse, or may make old psychiatric symptoms return.”

But that warning came three weeks after Mr. Elliott suffered his breakdown and tangled with police.

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