Soldiers Say Army Ignores, Punishes Mental Anguish

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We asked our audience to share their comments about this report, or tell us their own stories about coping with mental-health problems related to military service. Below is a sampling of some of the e-mails we've received.

Caring for the Guard

I am a full-time Army National Guard Soldier from Michigan. My current duty assignment as the states post deployment health reassessment (PDHRA) Team Leader is to see that returning National Guard soldiers receive all the medical and behavioral health care benefits that their Active Duty brethren receive. Unlike soldiers from the Regular Army, most Guardsmen and Reservists do not have the benefit of on-post medical and mental health facilities. Many return home with injuries or behavioral health issues, and it is the PDHRA programs purpose to get them the care they need and deserve. PDHRA is a federally mandated program administered by the National Guard Bureau, and implemented by the various states and territories. So often the National Guard is called on to serve alongside the Regular Army, but not given all the tools to do the job. Doing more with less is just a way of life in the Guard.

After hearing your story, I could only come to the conclusion that the Guard has once again found a better way than their counterparts. I know for a fact, that our soldiers who complete the PDHRA process have access to a wide variety of care options including but not limited to VA, Vet Center, TRICARE, and Military One Source (a free, confidential, counseling service) and Army chaplains. This care is extended not only to the soldier, but also to the soldier's family.

I was horrified and saddened that fellow soldiers, NCOs, leaders, could be so callow and cold. Perhaps their fear is that, but for the grace of God, those suffering soldiers could be them.

Please consider a story about a program that is centered on soldier care, and is working.

Feel free to contact me. I can put you in touch with people at the national and local level about the PDHRA program, and the care Soldiers (in Michigan, at least) are receiving.

Christopher Maes, Haslett, Mich.

Help the 'Kids'

I served in the Navy for 27 years and am always struck by the courage of our soldiers and sailors. I was also struck by your recent story on mental health issues. It took incredible courage for these young men to come forward and share their stories. It is my sincere hope that your efforts will get these "kids" the help they deserve. With your help, they will. Thank you NPR.

Bob Bechill, Lodi, Calif.

Sadly, an Old Story

I spent nine years in the U.S. Army, Infantry, from 1982-1991. I spent about a year of that time working as a Battalion Legal NCO (Non-commissioned Officer,) much of the function of this job was to process the paperwork necessary to kick a soldier out of the Army — often with a less-than-honorable discharge.

I have to tell you, it doesn't sound like much has changed since my time. And, the problems you're highlighting weren't limited to Fort Carson. I was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, Fort Knox, Ky., Fort Ord, Calif., and Ferris Barracks in Erlangen, Germany. The same stuff went on in varying degrees at all of these stations.

The substance abuse and mental health services available to soldiers has always been dismal. The attitude of General Patton (you've seen the movie where he slaps the soldier for gold-bricking?) is pervasive throughout our military, significantly so with any person in a combat arms MOS (military occupational specialty.) When I worked as a Legal NCO it was pretty much a weekly occurrence that a Company Commander or First Sergeant would call me, basically asking me how to railroad a soldier out of the Army because they were "pussies" and, this was a nice adjective compared to most.

When I heard the Sergeants you interviewed this evening talking about how they "loved" being in Iraq and couldn't wait to go back, it took me right back to those Dionysian days of drunken bravado that turned me into a lemming with a rifle and a bad attitude.

The responses from those Sergeants are indicative of the lack of understanding in the military over all about psychological defense mechanisms, both in and outside of combat situations. And, the piss poor treatment/access for mental health problems is simply a microcosmic study of the poor state of mental health treatment in our Country as a whole. Its viewed as a weakness in a patriarchal society which has been dragging us down for over 200 years.

Lets get Hillary elected so some of that machismo can get dusted out of Washington and maybe, just maybe, some things can start changing for the better in this country.

John Kirby, Long Beach, Calif.

Nightmares from Vietnam

I did 15 months of small unit ambushes in Vietnam in 1968-69. I was wounded twice and decorated for being young and reckless. Seventy-two hours after I came off my last ambush I was walking up my parent's driveway.

I've since been tortured by horrific nightmares and there was, quite literally, no help available for any of us returning and troubled veterans. I drank to excess, did drugs and eventually disappeared into the Alaska bush for a decade. I got no help from the VA until I had suicidal episode following a divorce and custody battle 20 years later.

I consoled myself with the notion that the sacrifices made by Vietnam veterans might have been, in some small way, worthwhile if the nation was so shamed by the way we were treated, that they would treat subsequent veterans better.

It breaks my heart that our government is denying combat veterans the care they need.

Jon Holland, Snohomish, Wash.

Civilians are Suffering Too

The story that you tell is quite disturbing, but what I did not see is that there is no mention of all the Department of Defense civilians that risked there lives to help the cause, most notably is the US Army Corps of Engineers. I served six months in the green zone and many other locations in Iraq as a DoD civilian and experienced many difficulties when I returned. Even though we where not fighters, we where exposed to the same dangers and horrors as the soldier (shot at, vbied etc,etc) We civilians (not contractors) raised our hand and swore the oath just as the soldiers do and when we returned, where not even given the chance to have those programs offered to us. We fell between the cracks when it came to mental heath issues. I could not sleep for quite some time after returning and drank heavily. After seeking out mental help, I am still having issues that I deal with. And I have to pay for it myself with my own health insurance, which has cost me quite amount of money.

Please have Daniel do a continuing story on the DoD Civilians who stand up proudly and serve there country in the face of extreme danger and not recognized for it along with the suffering there families endure.

Mark Emelio, Borden, Ind.

The Curse of Drugs

I am so proud of you for addressing this issue. I work as an addiction counselor/therapist and have seen returning soldiers who have been discharged for using drugs, and consequently, they are not allowed to get counseling from the Veterans Administration. They are shunned. Yet they turn to drugs to cope with the shame and pain of what went on during the war.

One client was a torturer at one of the prisons in Afghanistan and he is now addicted to Meth and "anything else that keeps him from thinking about what he did."

This is not right. This is our country turning away from our young men who signed up to serve... and did as they were told!

I get so furious!

This government has hid the many returning wounded from sight, by sending them to Germany and elsewhere. We are only beginning to see the toll it has taken on our young soldiers.

Thank you for doing your research. Keep digging! Please.

Kristi Theone Vandivier, Palo Alto, Calif.

Supporting America's Troops

Great story.

Thank you for truly supporting the troops!

I don't support what they do in this conflict. I support helping them and those they harm. Its all a bit crazy... your story gets beyond the sound bites and daily death tolls.

R.J. Rex, Bellingham, Wash.

A Correction...

Daniel Zwerdling's report was spot on and not limited to today's context. I'm a 23-year veteran, both active and reserve, and worked as a substance abuse counselor early in my career. Even during the 1980s and 90s, and not just in the U.S. Army, anyone who dared to take care of his or her mental health could kiss that military career goodbye. The mental health providers, chaplains, etc., tried and tried to not let the system ruin people for doing the right thing, but commanders and supervisors tend to see only the resource, not the person when it comes to deviations from the status quo. The culture of the U.S. military remains adolescent and macho, in that — like the NCO who castigated "weak-willed" personnel — any perception of normal human problems results in punishment rather than help. Those who face up to being human after any trauma as a result of military service and seek help are the real heroes those who cant wait to get back to the fighting have been successfully dehumanized. I never met a combat veteran who after some time of reflection didn't come to see war as tragedy, whether he or she still believed it was necessary or not. It was gratifying, and proof to the point, that that NCO did realize — after he separated from the Army — that he needed help. Mr. Zwerdling did us all a great service by being a real journalist on this story.

PS: One must honorably complete at least 20 years of service to "retire" from a branch of the U.S. military if that Sgt was only 26 or 27 and no longer in the Army he could not have "retired." The proper term is "separated" or more popularly known as "discharged," honorably or otherwise.

R. Byron Breese, Ithaca, N.Y.

Unfortunately, an Old Pattern

I have been working with combat veterans from Vietnam to today's conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an attorney, now retired, and a claims officer for Vietnam Veterans of America, I can tell you that your story shows nothing new. The military has had an official policy since World War I to deny that a statistically significant number of combat vets experience life-altering events in combat, particularly in insurgency-type conflicts. In order to deny benefits, the military uses two tools, one described in your story. The "patterns of conduct," usually the result of mental health symptoms, are used to discharge a soldier with bad paper and no entitlement to benefits. Secondly, they will diagnose a personality disorder, with little or no historical anecdotal factual support, thereby determining that the mental problems pre-existed military service. Again, this denies the veteran disability benefits because the illness is not "service-connected."

The person you interviewed at DoD was either lying or deliberately ignorant. Everyone who has served knows that if you seek mental health assistance, your career is over.

I am a Vietnam combat veteran, highly decorated, retired attorney, and totally disabled from PTSD and numerous physical ailments resulting from being wounded and exposure to Agent Orange.

Stuart Steinberg, Terrebonne, Ore.

I Served in Desert Storm

As a former Navy Chaplain who was assigned to 6th Marines on the front in Desert Storm, this piece was right on target. I understand the mentality that leads commanders to ostracize PTSD suffers once they return from combat. I also now recognize, as a clinically trained Hospital Chaplain the feeling of abandonment these heroes of our nation's foreign policy feel when their courage and faithfulness gives birth to emotional scarring. Your piece captured these issues perfectly.

In many ways, it is a PTSD dance, where the PTSD of the suffering heroes smashes head-on with the denied PTSD of their seniors. Just as the sufferers often become abusers in their homes and families, so also those in the command structure who also has been through this same traumatic experience have PTSD symptoms (which they deny), and become abusers with their subordinates.

But the military culture encourages denial, because PTSD is seen as cowardly. The slapping scene in the movie Patton is a perfect example of this cultural norm. Yet denial is not a health response and hinders long-term healing. Thus instead of managing the scars, they fester.

Ultimately, the DOD tactics of ostracizing and discharging doesn't save the government a cent, it only transfers the burden of care to the VA. It also serves to dishonor these honored wounded, and in doing so, dishonor the Army itself.

Thomas D. Tostenson, Phoenix, Ariz.

Memories of Vietnam

I served in Vietnam for two tours of duty as a Marine. I am now almost 60 and for the last two years I have been trying to get PTSD disability compensation from the Veteran's Administration. It has been an uphill battle every step of the way. I can truly understand the frustration the soldiers interviewed for your program feel. I was only in Vietnam a short while when I saw a man's body blown in half. He was just a few steps ahead of me when he stepped on a land mind. When I ran up to him and stooped down to speak with him he said, "I don't feel anything." The bottom half of his body was gone. When I stood up to call for a medic and bent back down, he was dead. I'll never forget this as long as I live, even though it's been 40 years. Our government asks young men to go into combat and serve their country, and when its time to help these returning veterans, they are oftentimes shuffled from one office to another, or treated as weak. I am hoping to get a hearing this month, one that I have been waiting for over a year. Our country is not treating veteran's right, and it has been going on for years.

Randy Allen, Monroe, Ga.

You Interviewed My Nephew

Regarding the story about PTSD in soldiers returning from Iraq. Sgt. Drew Preston is my nephew. He comes from a military family that is solidly indoctrinated in the military and its beliefs. I don't share those beliefs and, after hearing of his safe return from his first tour of duty in Iraq, was dismayed to learn he had signed up for another.

Drew has done well and has accomplished a great deal for such a young man, though I am not proud of hearing about him in this story. He acts the way he does because he is a product of our military, and, to some extent, I can understand the remarks he made about soldiers with PTSD. But I am ashamed of the unthinking blind allegiance to the military that creates this hostile environment for returning soldiers who are truly ill. My heart goes out to those soldiers and their families who have suffered and continued to suffer the effects of PTSD, and were treated so shabbily at the hands of the government they had served so well.

Have we learned nothing from the damaged soldiers who came home from Vietnam? I know some who still can't bring themselves to talk of their experiences some thirty-odd years later. Back then, there was no PTSD soldiers self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, and in many cases, thoroughly ruined their lives. Are we going to let down this generation, too?

Jan OConnell, Amherst, N.Y.

It Happened to Me, Too

I am a 40 year old vet who served in Iraq in 2003. I am outraged, but not surprised, that there this is happening. I know that sounds weird, but I've known great leadership and poor leadership in the Army. They are discarding soldiers who are wounded in ways they can't see and don't understand.

I know this: I have been diagnosed with PTSD too. It is a struggle every day.

We owe these young men and women too much to simply discard them because their problems aren't easy to comprehend or cure.

Jeff Stinchcomb, San Diego, Calif.

Police are Afflicted, Too

I believe we need to look into the PSTD that many of our police officers experience. My husband has been with the VA state police for almost 20 years. He has been diagnosed with PSTD and has been on long-term disability since March. Workman's comp has declined him. The therapist he was required to see wasn't part of the state's insurance network therefore we now have a $3,000.00 bill that the state won't pay. We went for four months with no health insurance because we couldn't afford it. If he had been shot or run over while he was on the road he would have all the help he needs. It's unfortunate however that he has suffered a mental wound from the 20 years of fatalities, murders, domestic disputes, drug dealers, drug users and extremely poor work schedules.

Lenita Webster, Dayton, Va.

War Duty is Never 'Fun'

As a retired military veteran with 36 years of service I was sickened by the comments made by the Non-Com's in the segment you aired concerning mental health of returning soldiers. I served in Vietnam and Panama (during Operation Just Cause — Noriega ouster). Plus I served in Turkey during Operations Provide Comfort and Northern Watch. I can assure you that at no time were any of these duty assignments 'FUN' as Sgt. Temples said duty in Iraq was. I wonder what we are creating in our military when they look at killing as fun? These soldiers serve in the Army, are indoctrinated with this sort of philosophy, are sent to Iraq, return and upon discharge are picked up by a police department because of their experience. Then we, "John Q Public" are shocked when we see police officers beating a handcuffed suspect. As far as I am concerned, these Non-Coms aren't professional soldiers. They are no more than mercenaries serving for the highest pay. Oh and by the way, driving career military personnel out of the service when they admit mental health problems is nothing new. I avoided getting any sort of help after returning from Vietnam, even after my wife said I was not the man she married. I tried to hide my problems with booze and was miserable until I finally (20 years after returning) got help. You see I didn't want to put my career in jeopardy.

Donald Clark, Toledo, Ohio

Slanted Story

I just listened to this story. Although I would attribute nothing but the best intentions to the reporter, I am very uncomfortable with the story's not-so-subtle slant. The report began with an almost conspiratorial tone and went on to back up the theme with what felt like self-serving facts. Just because the Army would not discuss this issue with Mr. Zwerdling does not necessarily prove that they are doing wrong by these veterans.

I applaud NPR for reporting on a sensitive issue, but I fault them for one sided reporting.

Steve Parrish, Iowa

Walking Time Bombs

My name is James Wright, retired E-9, U.S. Army, serving faithful and honorable for 27 years. My question is what the heck is wrong with the young NCO/Officer corps whose duty is to take care of those young soldiers in their care? When I served (101ST ABN Div. MPs and counterintelligence in last 12 years of my career) (Vietnam, Bosnia, and a few others I cannot divulge because of my intel work) we took care of our soldiers. I've seen some extreme cases of post combat type stress. We didn't leave those soldiers hanging out there. We got help for them and a great many were able to adjust and go on to lead normal lives. We have a great and strong army with great and strong leadership but we also have some less than capable NCOs & Officers. I speaking first hand because I saw it while I was active and still see it today (I work on an army installation). You don't chastise a soldier because he/she is stressed because of a war he/she didn't ask for. I didn't. Some of those that claim they are not affected probably do a good job of hiding it. There is probably a lot of soldiers with suppressed stress and anxiety due to combat. They are walking time bombs. I appeal to all NCOs & Officers to take care of the soldier instead of making a spectacle of them. As a soldier who has walked the walk, Im not sure I would trust you to have my back if it came down to the real deal.

James Wright, Hampton, Va.

It's Not a 'Disorder'

It is time to stop calling the natural human reaction to the horrific realities of war, a "disorder." No amount of yellow ribbons, greeting cards, American flags, or speeches can undo the damage that is done to a young soul who has experienced the true hell of combat. We must never turn our backs on our brave men and women who are suffering the "post traumatic stress" of trying to face the pain and devastation that most of the rest of us have never had to endure. We must stand with them, now more than ever, and demand that every possible resource be brought to aid them in their return to their roles of husband, wife, parent, child, sibling, friend, and co-worker. We as citizens of the nation they believed they were going to war to protect must help them reclaim their humanity from the "battlefield" before they and their loved ones become yet more tragic casualties of this war.

Jocelyn Bartone, Annapolis, Md.

Change of Plans

I am a 19-year-old college freshman nursing major at a state university in Pennsylvania. This semester I have participated in the university's ROTC program, planning on becoming an officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps upon graduation. My plans were changed significantly upon hearing the excellent expose by Daniel Zwerdling. While no true "hazing" goes on within the ROTC program, significant amounts of talking down to and shaming are used to motivate better performance. There are too many civilian opportunities for nurses to allow my life to be wasted in military mental health facilities like the one covered in this report.

Aaron Ashworth, Barnesville, Pa.

Both Officers and Soldiers have Problems

Dear NPR,

The real issue here is that both the Fort Carson senior Army leadership and the soldiers with PTSD have legitimate problems. The Fort Carson Army leaders must spend their time training to return to combat with a limited amount of training time (typically less than 12 months) with a population of soldiers that have multiple combat tours which increases their opportunity to develop PTSD. The true problem is that you have a mental health and medical system that is abysmally prepared to treat these soldiers and Army leaders that have no choice but to continually focus on preparing their units for subsequent combat employments. Naturally, the troubled soldiers are given the easiest solution, removal from the Army. However, this solution hurts both Army leaders by depriving them of quality soldiers and the soldiers themselves by not giving them a quality, timely, and effective way to treat their PTSD. The Army must adapt its training and leadership techniques to incorporate the challenges of treating PTSD in a helpful, quality, and timely fashion while continuing to train soldiers to undertake their combat duties. This is a responsibility that the Army leadership owes to the country, their soldiers, and themselves.

I am a Major in the Army Special Forces and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. I served 12 months in combat in Iraq.

Chad Storlie, Omaha, Neb.

From the Pulpit

Listening to Daniel Zwerdling's report about the treatment of combat soldiers suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues resulting from combat experiences in Iraq I went through a wide range of emotions -first disbelief, then a profound sadness, and finally anger. These are the same issues that many of my fellow combat veterans went through in Vietnam. I naively thought that after Vietnam the military had learned its lessons about combat stress. Sadly I am mistaken. These young patriots are being mistreated by the same country and military that gladly will ask them to sacrifice their lives for a questionable cause. And the military has learned nothing!!

Because of their humanity, morals and ethics, they are being denied the mental health treatment they so desperately need, being ostracized by their peers and drummed out of the military without any acknowledgement by the military of its complicity in the creation of the problems experienced by these young people.

Really scary are the attitudes of the young sergeants who denied having any problems and want to go back and kill some more. At some point these two young men, and others like them, will be loose on the streets in their hometowns looking for the adrenalin rush they got in combat without the internalized sense of humanity, ethics and morals needed for the safety of society.

Had our Commander in Chief actually served in combat instead of drinking his way through his mandatory military service, I firmly believe that Mr. Zwerdling would not have had to report this sad state of affairs. However, we are where we are and need to work our way through it. That is why as soon as I finish this note to NPR Im contacting my congressman who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. This abomination being perpetrated on our combat soldiers has to stop.

Max Soucia, Presque Isle, Maine

Naive and Biased Reporting

The reporter is naive and biased. Is choking ones bedmate, as three of the soldiers he reported on did, a symptom of PTSD, or is that behavior good an example of a symptom one should report in order to ensure that a diagnosis of PTSD is made?. PTSD is a disorder that is easily feigned. Those who feign it generally do so for secondary gain — to get out of trouble, or to obtain disability benefits. Did Mr. Zwerdling consider that some of the soldiers he interviewed have acted out in order to procure their discharge and gain disability benefits? Did he wonder why none of the trained killers/victims in his report made a successful suicide attempt, or that the attempts were feigned for secondary gain, such as bolstering a claim of emotional turmoil? Does he know that a soldier with a diagnosis of PTSD will never have to work again if he goes to the right VA office, such as Seattle, Portland, Honolulu, and claims that he can't work because of the PTSD? A veteran may receive tax free payments of up to $5500 per month from the VA (although $2400 is more typical) for PTSD, with add ional money for spouses and minor children, and another $500-1000 in Social Security disability payments? The veteran, his spouse and children will be able to attend many public colleges tuition free, and receive substantial stipends in addition to the disability payments. In most areas, the veteran will be exempt from real estate and personal property taxes. All thing considered, he will be much better off financially than he would have been had he remained in the Army, and will enjoy a middle class income without having to work.

Mr. Zwerdling's schadenfreude, or was it contempt, in the case of the hard-line soldier who later sought counseling for PTSD is inappropriate and inexcusable.

James Exnicios, Manassas, Va.

Seeing Mistreatment First-Hand

I was a soldier stationed at Fort Polk in La. and I saw first hand how soldiers were treated with PTSD. I worked in the orderly room so I was aware of the coming and goings of soldiers because I handled their paperwork. The chain of command and their dealings with soldiers, how do I say this, was very unprofessional to put it mildly. The 1st sergeant would make comments to me about the soldier. Of course you can't respond however, there were times when I really wanted to say something. It was only the 1st sergeant it was also other NCOs. The staff sergeant that was in charge of my platoon was a real you know what! He was brutal to the soldier and relentless. I myself was never deployed because my doctor would not release me because of an injury. This staff sergeant and 1st Lt cornered me and told me that I only had two choices to deploy or get out of the army. They basically said they had no use for me. This sergeant was non-deployable also because he was on profile and conveniently the 1st LT got pregnant before deployment. In all honesty, that army is nothing but one big game and if you don't play by their rules they have no use for you. The soldier is just a warm body who is not to speak but to do what they are told with no questions asked. We are groomed per say to be killing machines and not to have any thoughts or feelings just as long as we do the job that is set before us. After we serve are purpose, we are thrown out like used trash and replaced by the next eager soldier. With the willing to serve our country however, not truly knowing the cost!

Paula Black, Erie, Pa.

A Gun Under his Pillow

As I listened to your story about Fort Carson, and in particular the young soldier who said soldiers who seek psychiatric treatment just need to 'buck up', 'be a man'... and immediately went on to say his own girlfriend believes he has a huge anger problem and has severe PTSD — but he doesn't see it.

My first husband was a Vietnam vet. For years, he slept with a gun under his pillow and I was always very careful how I woke him. That was probably the least of it — that, at least, I could predict. A lot of the other things he did I couldn't. He was diagnosed by the VA with PTSD after a psychotic break. He left me after 10 years and I, thanks be to God, had the courage to lock the door and turn to raising our daughter. I remarried several years later — soon to be 17 years — and I am happy. To this day, nearly 20 years after our divorce, he is convinced that there's nothing wrong with him and that everything that's bad in his life is my fault.

We understand now what wasn't understood during the Vietnam War. To throw away brave and patriotic young men because they suffer from the violence our country has asked them to endure is reprehensible and unconscionable — I don't have the words to adequately condemn it. It just breaks my heart.

Amy-Jeanne Sayre, Monrovia, Ind.

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