Soldiers Face Obstacles to Mental Health Services

The military promises to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with emotional problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But an NPR investigation at one base in Colorado finds that soldiers aren't getting the services they need.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

Tens of thousands of soldiers are returning from Iraq with symptoms of serious mental health problems. That's according to the military's own studies. Those problems include acute depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. Administration officials have promised to heal soldiers suffering from emotional wounds. But an investigation at one army base, Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, reveals that some of the most desperate soldiers are having trouble getting the treatment they need.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Jason Harvey says he never dreamed he'd accuse the U.S. Army of betraying him. He's tacked a banner with the Army seal above his pillow. He cherishes the medals he got fighting in Iraq. But Harvey says if officials at Fort Carson had helped him the way they should have when he came back to the base last year, he probably wouldn't have tried to kill himself, and he'd still be in the Army.

Mr. JASON HARVEY (Iraq War Veteran): Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was a soldier.

ZWERDLING: The Army's records show Harvey was a good soldier in Iraq. He kept getting promoted. But by the time the Army sent his unit back to Fort Carson, Harvey was already having screaming nightmares. His medical records show what he told the doctors - quote, "I am so unhappy that I can't stand it. I have thoughts of killing myself," unquote. The records also show that doctors at Fort Carson gave him only occasional help. And late one night, six months ago, Harvey decided: enough. He was 22 years old.

Mr. HARVEY: I broke down and started crying and picked up a knife and started cutting myself. I started in on the top of my forearms and I made a couple of slits along my wrists. I just wanted to die.

ZWERDLING: Harvey had second thoughts and ended up in the hospital. The psychiatrist there said Harvey had PTSD. But officials at Fort Carson didn't order the medical unit to give him intensive help. Instead, they kicked him out of the Army on the grounds that he had broken some rules. Today, Harvey spends his day sleeping and watching TV in his mother's apartment. He still wakes up screaming from nightmares.

Mr. HARVEY: I think the Army failed me in not getting me the help I needed to cope. It's because at Fort Carson they don't care.

Dr. WILLIAM WINKENWERDER (Defense Health Affairs, Pentagon): There's no military in history that's done more than this military has for their physical health and their mental health.

ZWERDLING: That's the top doctor at the Pentagon. His name is William Winkenwerder. He's assistant secretary of defense. By the time I met with him in his office, I talked to 20 soldiers who've come back to Fort Carson after fighting in Iraq. They all said it's hard at the base to get the help soldiers need. Winkenwerder said he can't talk about Fort Carson, he doesn't know the facts. But those soldiers' stories are the opposite of the way the Army usually treats the troops.

Dr. WINKENWERDER: I draw no distinction between mental health and physical health. If a soldier or a Marine or sailor or airman is wounded, we go to help.

ZWERDLING: And on paper, it looks like the Army has great programs to help soldiers with emotional problems. They offer individual therapy and group therapy. They offer counseling for substance abuse. But in practice, soldiers say the programs at Fort Carson don't work the way they should. For instance, when soldiers come back from the war, they have to fill out a mental health questionnaire. A soldier named Corey Davis says the survey went something like this.

Mr. COREY DAVIS (U.S. Army): Are you feeling any kind of stress at home? Yes. Obviously. Having problems sleeping at night? Yes, nightmares. Yes.

ZWERDLING: Military officials say that's one of the main ways that they spot soldiers who might be in emotional trouble. And Davis says he was in trouble. He says he couldn't stop hearing the screams of the people he'd seen blown up in Iraq.

Did anybody at Fort Carson ever come to you and say, you've checked yes to all these questions; you need help, and here's how we're going to give it to you?

Mr. DAVIS: That never happened, and there was never even nothing like no talk of PTSD. Nothing.

ZWERDLING: Davis isn't the only one. The investigative arm of Congress, the GAO, did a national study on the screening program. And it found that almost 80 percent of the troops who showed potential signs of PTSD were not referred for a mental health follow-up. The Pentagon disagrees with the GAO's findings.

The soldiers say there's another obstacle to getting help, even when they ask for it. The mental health programs at Fort Carson have been overwhelmed by troops coming back from Iraq. So it can take weeks to get an appointment, even when they're feeling desperate. And soldiers say when that precious therapy appointment finally comes around, some officers block them from going to it.

Mr. WILLIAM MORRIS (Iraq War Veteran): Training was more important. Appointments didn't take priority.

ZWERDLING: William Morris is 28. When he came back from Iraq, psychiatrists at Fort Carson diagnosed him with PTSD. They wrote, He is taken things out on his wife; he will need intensive treatment. But Morris says he'd be taking part in some military training exercise with the rest of his platoon, it'd be time to go to therapy, and his supervisors wouldn't let him.

Mr. MORRIS: I'm in the field, I'm telling them, hey, I got an ADAP appointment that I have to be at - alcohol and drug abuse prevention - I have to be there. And they're like, well, you know, you need to call and cancel that.

Sgt. TRAVIS PLATT(ph) (U.S. Army): I have said that to a soldier.

ZWERDLING: That's one of the sergeants in Morris's company, Travis Platt. Now, I tried to talk with the commanding officers who run all of Fort Carson to get their side of the story. They refused. I asked if they'd let me talk to anybody on that base. And an Army spokesman named Paul Boyce said, Nope, not a single one, nada, and you can quote me. But I managed to contact low-level supervisors, like Sergeant Travis Platt. And Platt said it's true, sometimes supervisors do tell soldiers they can't go to therapy, or to any other appointments.

Sgt. PLATT: We have a training schedule. We have things that the Army needs to get done. That's what you're - you need to be focused on. And you can't train for a day, go to appointment, come back, train for a day, go to another appointment. You just don't get any training value out of it.

ZWERDLING: And soldiers say that attitude symbolizes a deeper problem at Fort Carson. They say many officers from the top down have contempt for soldiers who come back from the war with emotional problems. Platt and other sergeants I met agreed, but they said you have to look at the issue from their perspective. Sergeant Platt says, look, he went to the same horrors of the war as everybody else did. He's not falling apart.

Sgt. PLATT: Stuff happened in Iraq, people died, you know, I understand. But then again, I lost two of my friends and the I don't have a problem, you know. I mean, I'm sorry they died and all, but you've got to go on with life.

ZWERDLING: So Platt and other sergeants say most of the soldiers who've come back from Iraq and say they're having emotional problems are faking it.

Sgt. PLATT: People are trying to say they have problems who don't. Just because people are, you know, getting in trouble and they're just blaming it on PTSD.

ZWERDLING: For instance, Platt says some of the soldiers who keep going to the mental health unit are the same ones who've been doing the bad jobs since they come from Iraq. They show up late for formation. Sometimes they don't go to work at all. The officers keep citing them for being dirty, or lying, or taking drugs. I've obtained Army records and they corroborate with what Platt says.

On the other hand, military studies show that when soldiers get PTSD, or other emotional disorders, they often misbehave in just those kinds of ways. It's part of their illness. But Platt says that's no excuse. And he and another sergeant named Drew Preston(ph) says there's another reason why so many soldiers are pretending to have emotional problems.

Sgt. DREW PRESTON (U.S. Army): They don't want to go back to Iraq and they're trying to blame all their life's problems on PTSD.

Sgt. PLATT: The order comes down that, you know, we're going back, and then all of a sudden, oh, I got PTSD. PTSD is pretty much like the back door to get out of the military right now.

ZWERDLING: For the past two months, I've been asking officials at the Pentagon to send information which could show exactly what's going on at Fort Carson. For instance, how many soldiers have gone to the mental health unit? How many have been diagnosed with PTSD? How many soldiers have they kicked out? What are the trends? The Pentagon hasn't sent the answers.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

AMOS: Our investigation continues later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with details about how soldiers with emotional problems are harassed, punished and even forced out of the Army.

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Soldiers Say Army Ignores, Punishes Mental Anguish

Editor's Note: Since our story aired, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Christopher Bond (R-MO) and Barack Obama (D-IL) have asked the Pentagon to open an investigation into allegations that soldiers at Fort Carson did not receive adequate mental-health care. Dr. Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, appeared on Talk of the Nation to address the allegations. (Read the letter to Winkenwerder.)

Tyler Jennings

Medical records show that when Tyler Jennings returned from Iraq last year, he was severely depressed and used drugs to cope. When the sergeants who ran his platoon found out, they started to haze him. He came close to hanging himself after officials said they would kick him out of the Army. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

Share Your Thoughts

Share your comments about this report, or tell us your own story about coping with mental-health problems related to your military service. Don't forget to tell us your full name and how to pronounce it, and your city and state. Tell us if you wish to share your thoughts only with NPR's editors. Send us your thoughts.

 

Read some of the letters we've received so far.

Corey Davis i i

Corey Davis was a machine gunner in Iraq. He says he began "freaking out" after he returned to Ft. Carson; he had constant nightmares and began using drugs. When he sought help at the base hospital one day, he says he was told he'd have to wait more than a month to be seen. Courtesy Corey Davis hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Corey Davis
Corey Davis

Corey Davis was a machine gunner in Iraq. He says he began "freaking out" after he returned to Ft. Carson; he had constant nightmares and began using drugs. When he sought help at the base hospital one day, he says he was told he'd have to wait more than a month to be seen.

Courtesy Corey Davis
Jason Harvey
Rick Stone for NPR

Jason Harvey was diagnosed with PTSD. In May, he slashed his wrists and arms in a cry for help. Officials at Ft. Carson expelled Harvey from the Army a few months ago for "patterns of misconduct." Harvey had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Doctor's Diagnosis: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • 'Counseling' Form: Officials used disciplinary forms like this to cite Harvey for such infractions as "depression" and poor personal hygiene.
Alex and Donna Orum

Alex Orum, pictured with his wife Donna, was diagnosed with PTSD. He was dismissed from the Army earlier this year for "patterns of misconduct" — such as showing up late to formation and coming to work unwashed. Psychiatrists say such behaviors are consistent with PTSD. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Sgt. Nathan Towsley

Referring to soldiers with PTSD, recently retired sergeant Nathan Towsley told NPR that "I don't like people who are weak-minded." He said he'd never be caught going to a therapist. Since that interview, he's acknowledged that he's depressed and has trouble controlling his anger. He has just started therapy. Danny Zwerdling, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Danny Zwerdling, NPR
Platoon i i

Corey Davis, Tyler Jennings and Sgts. Drew Preston and Gabriel Temples all served in the same platoon in Iraq. Preston and Temples say Davis and Jennings were great soldiers in Iraq. But the sergeants think they've been "faking" their mental-health problems to avoid returning to war. Courtesy Corey Davis hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Corey Davis
Platoon

Corey Davis, Tyler Jennings and Sgts. Drew Preston and Gabriel Temples all served in the same platoon in Iraq. Preston and Temples say Davis and Jennings were great soldiers in Iraq. But the sergeants think they've been "faking" their mental-health problems to avoid returning to war.

Courtesy Corey Davis

Web Extra: A Family's Story

Liz Kaplan

After Liz Kaplan's son, Adam, returned to Ft. Carson from Iraq in late 2004, therapists diagnosed him with PTSD. They said his illness was triggered partly by an incident in Iraq: He accidentally caused the death of a fellow soldier as he blew up the doors of a suspected weapons cache.

 

But Liz and her husband say that after their son started doing drugs — which studies show is common among soldiers with PTSD — officials at Ft. Carson failed to give him the help he needed. Liz threatened to chain herself to a statue at the base's entrance until officials answered her family's pleas to help her son. (In the end, she didn't.) Adam Kaplan was eventually court-martialed on drug charges and sentenced to 15 months in military prison.

Web Extra: Silenced in Therapy

Michael Lemke

Military officials say that soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or other serious mental-health disorders can attend group therapy sessions at their Army bases. But soldiers at Ft. Carson said that in some cases, the group sessions make them feel more upset, not better.

 

Soldier Michael Lemke attended those sessions before he was discharged from the Army because of PTSD and other medical disabilities. As Lemke and others told NPR, Army therapists told soldiers they were not permitted to criticize Army officers during the therapy sessions — even though officers were allegedly harassing and punishing them for being emotionally "weak."

Part 1 of This Report

Army studies show that at least 20 percent to 25 percent of the soldiers who have served in Iraq display symptoms of serious mental-health problems, including depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Administration officials say there are extensive programs to heal soldiers both at home and in Iraq.

But an NPR investigation at Colorado's Ft. Carson has found that even those who feel desperate can have trouble getting the help they need. In fact, evidence suggests that officers at Ft. Carson punish soldiers who need help, and even kick them out of the Army.

Soldier Tyler Jennings says that when he came home from Iraq last year, he felt so depressed and desperate that he decided to kill himself. Late one night in the middle of May, his wife was out of town, and he felt more scared than he'd felt in gunfights in Iraq. Jennings says he opened the window, tied a noose around his neck and started drinking vodka, "trying to get drunk enough to either slip or just make that decision."

Five months before, Jennings had gone to the medical center at Ft. Carson, where a staff member typed up his symptoms: "Crying spells... hopelessness... helplessness... worthlessness." Jennings says that when the sergeants who ran his platoon found out he was having a breakdown and taking drugs, they started to haze him. He decided to attempt suicide when they said that they would eject him from the Army.

"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 [in Iraq]," he said. "Cause if you just die over there, everyone writes you off as a hero."

Services Out of Reach for Soldiers

Jennings isn't alone. Other soldiers who've returned to Ft. Carson from Iraq say they feel betrayed by the way officials have treated them. Army files show that these were soldiers in good standing before they went to Iraq, and that they started spinning out of control upon their return.

Since the war in Vietnam, military leaders have said that soldiers who are wounded emotionally need help, just like soldiers missing limbs.

"The goal, first and foremost, is to identify who's having a problem," says William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. "Secondly, it's to provide immediate support. And finally, our goal is to restore good mental health."

The Army boasts of having great programs to care for soldiers. The Pentagon has sent therapists to Iraq to work with soldiers in the field. And at Army bases in the United States, mental-health units offer individual and group therapy, and counseling for substance abuse. But soldiers say that in practice, the mental-health programs at Ft. Carson don't work the way they should.

For instance, soldiers fill out questionnaires when they return from Iraq that are supposed to warn officials if they might be getting depressed, or suffering from PTSD, or abusing alcohol or drugs. But many soldiers at Ft. Carson say that even though they acknowledged on the questionnaires that they were having disturbing symptoms, nobody at the base followed up to make sure they got appropriate support. A study by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, suggests it's a national problem: GAO found that about 80 percent of the soldiers who showed potential signs of PTSD were not referred for mental health follow-ups. The Pentagon disagrees with the GAO's findings.

Soldiers at Ft. Carson also say that even when they request support, the mental-health unit is so overwhelmed that they can't get the help they need. Corey Davis, who was a machine gunner in Iraq, says he began "freaking out" after he came back to Ft. Carson; he had constant nightmares and began using drugs. He says he finally got up the courage to go to the Army hospital to beg for help.

"They said I had to wait a month and a half before I'd be seen," Davis said. "I almost started crying right there."

Intimidated by Superiors

Almost all of the soldiers said that their worst problem is that their supervisors and friends turned them into pariahs when they learned that they were having an emotional crisis. Supervisors said it's true: They are giving some soldiers with problems a hard time, because they don't belong in the Army.

Jennings called a supervisor at Ft. Carson to say that he had almost killed himself, so he was going to skip formation to check into a psychiatric ward. The Defense Department's clinical guidelines say that when a soldier has been planning suicide, one of the main ways to help is to put him in the hospital. Instead, officers sent a team of soldiers to his house to put him in jail, saying that Jennings was 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.'"

A supervisor in Jennings' platoon corroborated Jennings' account of the incident.

Disciplined, Then Purged from the Ranks

Evidence suggests that officials are kicking soldiers with PTSD out of the Army in a manner that masks the problem.

Richard Travis, formerly the Army's senior prosecutor at Ft. Carson, is now in private practice. He says that the Army has to pay special mental-health benefits to soldiers discharged due to PTSD. But soldiers discharged for breaking the rules receive fewer or even no benefits, he says.

Alex Orum's medical records showed that he had PTSD, but his officers expelled him from the Army earlier this year for "patterns of misconduct," repeatedly citing him on disciplinary grounds. In Orum's case, he was cited for such infractions as showing up late to formation, coming to work unwashed, mishandling his personal finances and lying to supervisors — behaviors which psychiatrists say are consistent with PTSD.

Sergeant Nathan Towsley told NPR, "When I'm dealing with Alex Orum's personal problems on a daily basis, I don't have time to train soldiers to fight in Iraq. I have to get rid of him, because he is a detriment to the rest of the soldiers."

Doctors diagnosed another soldier named Jason Harvey with PTSD. At the end of May this year, Harvey slashed his wrists in a cry for help. Officials also kicked Harvey out a few months ago for "patterns of misconduct."

A therapist diagnosed Tyler Jennings with PTSD in May, but the Army's records show he is being tossed out because he used drugs and missed formations. Files on other soldiers suggest the same pattern: Those who seek mental-health help are repeatedly cited for misconduct, then purged from the ranks.

Most of these soldiers are leaving the Army with less than an "honorable discharge" — which an Army document warns "can result in substantial prejudice in your civilian life." In other words, the Army is pushing them out in disgrace.

Anne Hawke produced this report for broadcast.

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