February 18, 2009 The Pump Handle 2Comment

Last week, Salon.com published a disturbing in-depth series, called “Coming Home,” about the tragic consequences of the Army’s inability to provide adequate care to soldiers returning from Iraq. Focusing on just one base – Fort Carson, Colorado – they found the following:

Salon put together a sample of 25 suicides, prescription overdoses and murders among soldiers at Colorado’s Fort Carson since 2004. Intensive study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of preventable deaths, meaning a suicide or murder might have been avoided if the Army had better handled the predictable, well-known symptoms of a malady rampant among combat veterans: combat-related stress and brain injuries.

The individual stories of the soldiers involved in these tragedies make the series a compelling read, but the sad conclusion is that their problems are far from unique. The Army reported recently that 128 soldiers committed suicide last year, and Salon counts that from Fort Carson alone, 13 current or former soldiers have been convicted, accused, or linked to a murder after returning from Iraq. Salon’s Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin explain the common problems that emerged from their investigations:

1) A stigma, within the culture of the Army, against seeking mental healthcare;
2) pressure to deploy soldiers despite medical problems;
3) a failure to diagnose or properly treat combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injuries, despite clear symptoms;
4) a tendency to overmedicate soldiers suffering from either stress disorders or injuries.

Benjamin and de Yoanna report that the Pentagon has set up a hotline for soldiers who need counseling, launched a program to better incorporate mental health treatment into primary care, hired 250 new mental health providers, and revised the policy that formerly counted mental health counseling against a soldier’s security clearance. Officials are aware of the problems and working to correct them – but, as this series shows, the conditions that make coming home so difficult for so many veterans are deeply entrenched.

Here’s what Benjamin and de Yoanna write about the Army culture that makes it hard to get help:

Untreated, combat stress can cause bad behavior — insubordination, substance abuse, violent outbursts. The Army was quick to crack down on soldiers for misbehavior but showed little interest in figuring out the underlying cause. Our reporting suggests that saying there is a “stigma” in the Army associated with seeking mental healthcare is an understatement. Harassment or punishment of those soldiers who show signs of mental strain or “weakness” seems like a more accurate description. One mock official Army document at Fort Carson asked soldiers seeking mental health help to pick one of the following explanations for their “Hurt Feelings”: “I am a pussy,” “I am a queer,” “I want my mommy.” In that environment, some troops opted to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, making their problems worse.

For those who do get help, treatment may consist of heavy medication, which Benjamin and de Yoanna show has its own risks. The death of Pfc. Ryan Alderman from “multiple drug intoxication” was ruled a suicide, but Alderman’s father thinks his son’s body was simply overloaded from drugs (some prescribed, others not) he was using to try and control pain, anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Staff Sgt. Mark Waltz fell victim to “mixed drug intoxication” from drugs prescribed to him with an apparent lack of appropriate oversight.

Acknowledging that soldiers suffer from deployment-related injuries and illnesses leaves the Army responsible not only for their care, but for disability payments. If the Army can blame a soldier’s problems on a condition that existed before deployment, their responsibility diminishes. Pvt. Adam Lieberman, who attempted suicide after being required to leave a private mental-health facility where he was getting treated for PTSD and return to Fort Carson, told Salon that his Army psychologist “has been trying to give me a personality disorder since Day One, that I wanted to kill people before I got into the Army.”

When the Army fails to provide appropriate treatment, afflicted soldiers aren’t the only ones who suffer. One of the harrowing stories in this series is that of John Wiley Needham, who couldn’t get the help he needed; just weeks after being discharged from the Army, he allegedly beat 19-year-old Jacquwelyn Villagomez to death. (Needham’s father believes his son had a flashback and felt that he was being attacked.) De Yoanna and Benjamin explain the bureaucratic hurdle that denied Needham – and many other soldiers – the care he required:

The Army’s disability ratings system, which assigns percentages to gauge a soldier’s level of disability on a scale of zero to 100 percent, gave Needham a 20 percent rating for his back and just 10 percent for his PTSD, according to his medical records.

By law, Needham should have received 50 percentage points for PTSD alone. The difference in scores is an important detail, one that might have saved Villagomez. If Needham had received a total score of 50 on the disability scale — which a PTSD diagnosis by itself should’ve guaranteed — he could have received personalized support for his day-to-day issues, whether psychological, physical, financial or career. He also would be guaranteed lifetime military health benefits. With 10 points for PTSD and only 30 overall, he didn’t get the one-on-one attention he needed to transition back to civilian life. […]

Needham isn’t the only soldier to be discharged with a PTSD rating lower than the 50 points that the law requires for full benefits, according to a class-action lawsuit by the National Veterans Legal Services Program. The independent nonprofit, which fights to see that the nation’s 25 million military personnel and veterans receive benefits to which they are entitled, alleges that “thousands” of Iraq war veterans with PTSD are currently being denied care through Veterans Affairs because they were discharged with illegal PTSD ratings. The Army recently acknowledged the law in an Oct. 14, 2008, Defense Department directive, ordering that soldiers discharged with PTSD receive the proper rating.

Lawmakers and military officials repeatedly demonstrate their interest in caring for troops and veterans, but they may not realize just how big a job it is. Providing more money for mental-health and brain-injury treatments is an important step, but it’s just a start. The military’s culture will have to change, providers will need to have the training and resources to deliver proper treatment, and policies and practices will have to change so that soldiers get the benefits to which they’re entitled. It’s an enormous undertaking, but we have to do it – because, as the Coming Home series shows, the toll of the status quo is unacceptable.

2 thoughts on “Salon Investigates the Dark Side of Coming Home

  1. I’m glad more reporting is being done on the severity of mental health issues among returning soldiers. Unfortunately they are only half the story. Sadly it is the wives of these soldiers who must not only care for their husbands, but also protect themselves and their children from their spouses. The girlfriends of soldiers face the same dangers, but with even fewer resources.

    I hope the Army soon recognizes the toll the wars have taken on those who kept the home fires burning.

  2. Soldiers’ family members are strongly affected – thanks for highlighting that. Spouses and significant others bear a lot of the burden, and so do parents. In this series, there are several examples of parents who tried to help and advocate for their sons, and who were devastated that they couldn’t prevent tragedies from happening.

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