As many soldiers have experienced, a trip to Iraq or Afghanistan can seem quite exhausting. In Ranger Battalion, we at least had the benefit of flying in a C-17, and could sleep on the floor once we hit cruising altitude. I felt sorry for the rest of the military that had to fly in commercial jets – confined to that tiny little seat with little to no leg room.

There is a 7 and 8.5 hour difference in time between Eastern Standard Time and the local times of Baghdad and Kabul. When our platoon arrived in country we generally would be out conducting missions within 24 hours of wheels on the ground. During many deployments we were also on a reverse schedule of sleeping throughout the day and conducting missions at night. We needed something to help us switch time zones without a hiccup.

One method that was used to get us comfortable with the time difference and make sure we were well rested was the administration of Zolpidem, more commonly known as AMBIEN. Once we boarded the aircraft, the medics would hand out two pills, one for the leg to Germany and the other for the leg to whichever hunting ground we were to reside.

This is what Sanofi, the makers of AMBIEN, have to say about their product:

AMBIEN, is a sedative-hypnotic (sleep) medicine, AMBIEN is used for adults for the short-term treatment of a sleep problem called insomnia. Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • trouble falling asleep

For those who have never taken Ambien, it’s quite the experience and even more of an experience watching others that have taken the drug. I have an uncanny ability to instantly fall asleep whenever I am the passenger of a aircraft and therefore rarely needed or took the sleep aid. I have heard AMBIEN is great for people who actually suffer from insomnia, but does have some side-effects that are listed below – once again, according to Sanofi:

After taking AMBIEN, you may get up out of bed while not being fully awake and do an activity that you do not know you are doing. The next morning, you may not remember that you did anything during the night – or in a C-17 at 36,000 ft – Reported activities include:

  • driving a car (“sleep-driving”)
  • making and eating food
  • talking on the phone
  • having sex
  • sleep-walking

As I stated before, I could fall asleep as soon as I became the passenger of an aircraft, but it’s really hard to sleep the entirety of both legs. That is when you see things, things that you are pretty sure weren’t in the scope of your buddies’ “normal” behavior.

It wasn’t uncommon to see someone fall asleep sitting up, unbuckle their seatbelt, and take a header into the cold metal floor of the aircraft without ever waking up, or having any recollection of the events.

Watching someone try to eat an orange while sleeping is one of the most entertaining things one can observe while in flight. The warnings of ‘making and eating food’ don’t go into detail about the neanderthal characteristics the drug induces. They are coordinated enough to hold the orange, look at and smell the orange, but not quite sure how to peel the orange. It’s kind of like watching one those videos of a chimpanzee inspecting something that he/she has never seen or touched before. Sniff, sniff…turn, wait five minutes…sniff, sniff…turn, wait five minutes…oh what the hell…take a giant bite out of the un-peeled orange…just hold it in my mouth and go back to sleep.

After a recent visit with my old Ranger buddy, Jake, we were discussing the hilarious events caused by Ambien. He told me a story about a mutual friend of ours – I’ll call him Andrew – who took his pill a little too early. The plane had some technical difficulties and was forced to sit on the tarmac for an extended period of time, and all the while that small little pill was taking its effect.

Everyone was seated, buckled in, and smashed shoulder to shoulder as the plane began its ascent. That’s when Andrew decided to jump out of his seat and start climbing the inner frame of the C-17 fuselage. Members of the platoon and the aircrew jumped from their seats, screaming at Andrew to get his ass back in his seat. After a struggle of leg pulling and ‘what the hell were you thinking,’ Andrew was eventually back in his seat, asleep like a little princess.

Out of the warnings listed by the makers of Ambien, I witnessed plenty of sleep walking, people talking to themselves, making and attempting to eat food, along with many things that are too hard to explain. I thankfully never  saw anybody on the plane ‘driving a car,’ although they probably wouldn’t have gotten very far since the GMVs were chained to the aircraft floor.

Talking on the phone was out of the question, unless the PL or PSG were making SAT calls on the flight over, but I never saw that one. Of all the warnings, the one that I am most thankful that I did not see was ‘having sex.’ Try and explain that one to the 50 or so other men on the plane. Sure, sure…it was all the Ambien’s fault.

Most of these strange events and behaviors probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Recently, the FDA announced that the recommended dosage of Zolpidem was going to be cut in half due to ‘sleep driving,’ but maybe they would have done something sooner if an FDA representative would have taken a ride with a platoon of Rangers flying on Ambien.

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