FAYETTEVILLE, N.C., Aug. 17 (UPI) -- One of the soldiers was "almost incoherent" and visibly shaking while describing marital problems to a neighbor. Another became unable to control his anger at his wife in public, startling those who knew him. A third puzzled his new neighbors with his strange behavior.
Soldiers at Fort Bragg said they are well aware of mental problems linked to the anti-malaria drug Lariam, which include aggression, depression, paranoia, hallucinations and suicidal thinking, even as official military spokesmen dismiss a connection between the drug and the events around Fayetteville this summer which have drawn national attention.
Spokesmen for the Army, which invented the drug and says it is safe, told UPI the Army will review scientific literature on Lariam, also called mefloquine, but believe it played no role in any of the deaths because there is evidence of domestic problems in each one.
Over the years, Lariam's label, written by manufacturer Hoffmann-La Roche and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, has included increasingly troublesome side effects, and warns about aggression, paranoia, psychosis, hallucinations and suicidal thinking. Some patients complain of severe side effects lasting years after they stopped taking the drug.
The Army will not say whether any of the soldiers took Lariam, but a source close to members of the secret Delta Force said Wednesday that Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Floyd had taken Lariam in Afghanistan. Delta Force is the U.S. Army's elite counter-terrorism unit.
UPI confirmed last week that Master Sgt. William Wright and Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves both were given Lariam. Lariam is the Army's drug of choice over other alternatives for preventing malaria.
Wright is charged with murder in the death of his wife, Jennifer. Nieves and Floyd shot themselves to death after killing their wives, according to authorities.
Floyd, who served in Delta Force, shot his wife and then himself in their home outside Stedman on July 19, seven months after returning from Afghanistan, according to authorities.
Andrea Floyd's mother, Penny Flitcraft, said Brandon's behavior had changed markedly since his last deployment to Afghanistan. For the first time, he would lash out at his wife in front of other family members, soldiers or in public.
"Before Afghanistan, he might have been unkind to her one on one," Flitcraft said. But after Afghanistan, "his behavior was increasingly bad."
"He became extremely verbally abusive to Andrea," according to Flitcraft, shocking family members.
Flitcraft said Brandon had started acting very strange after his return. In early July, Andrea had planned to take their three kids to see Flitcraft in Lexington, Ohio, when Brandon then insisted on going with her. Just two hours after arriving, Brandon then insisted the entire family pile back into the car for the nine-hour drive back to North Carolina.
"It was the last time I saw my daughter alive," Flitcraft said.
Master Sgt. William Wright, a special operations soldier, had difficulty speaking coherently, was shaking and seemed withdrawn after returning from Afghanistan in May, according to his neighbor and family friend Betty Clark. Wright is charged with murder in the strangling death of his wife, Jennifer, on June 29. He originally reported her missing but on July 19, he led sheriff's deputies to her body buried in a shallow grave.
"He had been getting worse and worse," since returning from Afghanistan to serious domestic problems, Clark said. "He was very nervous, not to say agitated, but nervous ... I think it was just life he had problems dealing with."
Wright came to Clark's home to discuss his marital problems, she said. "When he would try to talk he would have difficulty. He was having so much difficulty relating to us. He would stutter and stammer a lot.
"At points," she said, he was "almost incoherent - hands shaking, difficulty talking."
Wright's attorney, Thomas Maher, said Wright told him he had taken Lariam and while he did not blame the drug for any specific side effects, described a feeling of "floating" since returning from Afghanistan. "He felt like he was kind of floating when he got back," Maher said.
Maher said Wright had moved out of the family home just outside Fayetteville at his wife's request and that they were discussing a divorce. Maher said that Wright wanted to save the marriage because he did not want to be separated from his three sons, but his wife had already begun telling people the couple was divorced.
Wright's superior officer, Maj. Daniel Barzyk, said some soldiers in Afghanistan had been taken off Lariam and switched to an alternative drug for what he described as "erratic behavior." Barzyk said he himself sometimes experienced increased anger because of Lariam.
Barzyk said he saw no sign that Wright had problems while in Afghanistan. But he noted that an Internet search shows the drug has been associated with mental problems.
According to a military source familiar with a third case, Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves was also given Lariam in Afghanistan. Nieves shot his wife Teresa and then himself in a bathroom of their Fayetteville home on June 11th, according to police. That was two days after he returned home early from Afghanistan to address what he said were personal problems.
The Nieves settled on their home in a quiet middle-class subdivision on the edge of Fayetteville while Rigoberto was still deployed. Neighbors said they were puzzled by his behavior when he returned. They said he went to neighbors' houses, did not introduce himself, but would declare that he was "the man of the house," neighbors said.
There was no indication that a fourth soldier suspected of killing his wife, Sgt. Cedric Griffin, had been deployed where Lariam would have been prescribed.
Family of soldiers said they have long known about problems with Lariam.
"I don't know why the Army would tell them that it's OK, when obviously it's doing things to people," said Sheila Harriman, the wife of Stanley Harriman, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who was killed during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. She also said her husband did contract malaria once, and that soldiers should take something to avoid suffering from the disease.
The Army first told UPI it had no plans to consider Lariam in its own review of the facts surrounding the deaths, but on Aug. 9th sent a statement saying that review would include a search of the medical literature about Lariam.
Army officials have also said Lariam probably did not play a role in the killings because the soldiers' marriages were in trouble. "I think you are heading down the wrong road. That is just my personal opinion," said Maj. Gary Kolb, spokesman for the Army's Special Operations Command.
Experts on domestic violence said this cluster of killings particularly puzzles them because so far there is no indication that any of the soldiers had a history of domestic violence. In 80 percent of cases an escalating cycle of violence precedes a killing.
Andrea Floyd's mother, Penny Flitcraft said the Army had tried to shut her up and told her to talk only to special operations about her daughter's death, apparently at the hands of her Delta Force husband. Flitcraft said the Army even approached her husband at Brandon funeral and said terrorists might find her by seeing her name in the press.
"The Army is not happy with me," Flitcraft said. But she vowed to keep talking because the deaths still are not fully understood. "They are not shutting me up. My daughter died a useless death. They can't bring my daughter back but I want to prevent this from happening to another mother."
UPI reported in May that mounting evidence suggests Lariam has caused such severe mental problems that in a small percentage of cases it has led to suicide. In July, UPI reported that scores of Peace Corps volunteers are coming forward saying they have suffered severe mental problems, some of which have lasted for years after they stopped taking the drug.
(This story was first published Friday Aug. 16, 2002. J.S. Newton, a freelance reporter, contributed to this story)