Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mental Health and the Returning Soldier

When Tyler Jennings returned to Ft. Carson, Colorado from Iraq, he became depressed and anxious. It got so bad, he decided to kill himself. One night in mid-May of last year, with his wife out of town, he tied a noose around his neck, opened a window and sat on the ledge, drinking vodka - hoping he would get so drunk that he would either slip and fall or work up the nerve to propel himself to his death.

Five months before, he had sought help from mental health professionals on base who reported his symptoms as "Crying spells... hopelessness... helplessness... worthlessness." When the Sergeants who supervised his platoon found out he was seeking therapy and self-medicating, they began to haze him. That hazing he was subjected to was what drove him to that ledge that May night, with a bottle of vodka and a noose around his neck. He was made suicidal by the threats of those Sergeants to eject him from the Army rather than see he got the help he not only needed...but deserved.

"You know, there were many times I've told my wife -- in just a state of panic, and just being so upset -- that I really wished I just died over there, cause if you just die over there, everyone writes you off as a hero."

After hitting bottom in May, Jennings called his supervisor to report that he had nearly suicided and that he would be skipping formation to check himself into a psychiatric facility; per DoD clinical guidelines; which state explicitly that soldiers with suicidal ideations should be hospitalized.

Instead of working within those guidelines, a team of soldiers was sent to his home, to arrest him for being AWOL for missing work. "I had them pounding on my door out there. They're saying 'Jennings, you're AWOL. The police are going to come get you. You've got 10 seconds to open up this door,'" Jennings said. "I was really scared about it. But finally, I opened the door up for them, and I was like 'I'm going to the hospital.'"

What Tyler Jennings experienced was not an isolated incidence. Numerous Soldiers at Ft. Carson who have returned from Iraq have reported that they feel betrayed by the way they have been treated when they returned and had problems adjusting to life stateside. Those they answer to have marginalized them and branded them as "weak willed."

This in spite of the evidence accumulated by the DoD studies that show 20-25% of all returnees will experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or other difficulties readjusting to life back home. These are soldiers who had no reprimands prior to serving in Iraq, but who began to spin out of control upon their return.

Nearly all of these soldiers said that the problems they experienced were exacerbated by supervisors and fellow soldiers who castigated them for having emotional difficulties. Some supervisors admit it freely, maintaining that there is no place in the Army for those who can't deal. Other supervisors accuse those experiencing difficulty of malingering, or even cowardice; refusing to believe they are truly experiencing difficulty, instead they just don't want to go back to war. In a report on NPR, two Sergeants interviewed said they often refused to allow soldiers in their charge the time to attend mental health counseling sessions.

Military spokespersons maintain that soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or other serious emotional and readjustment issues can attend group therapy sessions on their bases, but the soldiers at Ft. Carson aver that in many instances the group sessions only served to exacerbate their problems and make them feel worse.

Those seeking treatment are told by the therapists that they are not permitted to criticize their Officers and Sergeants, even thought it is the Officers and Sergeants who are harassing them and punishing them for being "weak minded."

Only in the military can you be prohibited from bringing up in therapy what is really bothering you.

The military issue has become enough of a public concern that Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Barak Obama (D-IL) and Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) (Senator Bond's son is currently serving in Iraq) have asked the Pentagon to open an investigation into the treatment - and punishment - of returning soldiers who experience difficulty with mental health issues. "It is tremendously problematic that Fort Carson officials take it upon themselves to make medical determinations without input from mental health professionals," the senators said in the letter to Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

Besides asking for an investigation, the senators asked Winkenwerder to look into whether commanders at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, have given a low priority to mental health treatment for soldiers suffering from service-connected mental health problems, and what plans there are to correct any such problem.

They also want details about available mental health treatment for soldiers, how many soldiers at Fort Carson have sought treatment in the past four years, and how many have been diagnosed with PTSD after service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"The goal, first and foremost, is to identify who's having a problem," said Winkenwerder. "Secondly, it's to provide immediate support. And finally, our goal is to restore good mental health."

The Army is very fond of touting the programs it has in place to care for soldiers, pointing out that the Pentagon has sent therapists to Iraq to work with soldiers on the ground.

All the programs in the world can't help Soldiers who are not allowed to utilize those services.

This is an issue that can't be ignored. The soldiers were sent into harms way deserve to receive the treatment they need, and how you feel about the war is irrelevant, put that aside for now. This is a bigger issue. These are real people, they are our fellow Americans, and they have been betrayed by their Sergeants and Commanders.

Don't let them be betrayed by American citizens. We have been down that path before, and it was not to our credit. Contact the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees; and the Senators who have demanded the investigation.

This is a tragedy and these soldiers deserve better.

Demand they get it.