Do Soldiers Receive Adequate Mental Health Care?

Earlier this week, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling presented two reports looking at the difficulties some soldiers face getting treatment for mental health issues in the military. He discusses his reports, and Dr. William Winkenwerder, head of the military health system, talks about military efforts to try to take care of the mental health of soldiers.

Guests:

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR Correspondent

Dr. William Winkenwerder, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs

Your Stories: Mental Health Care and the Military

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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.

Our Flawed, Warrior-Making Culture

Thank you so much for doing this story. I was immobilized as I listened to the heartfelt stories of these soldiers. I was also ashamed of our treatment of them. I believe that a warrior making culture like ours has to try to create an environment that denies humanness ("be a man") in order for individuals to be able to do and witness heinous acts committed against other humans. I feel most sorry for the soldiers who don't admit the mental effects of being in war — their loss of humanity makes living among them a scary thought.

Kathy Castania, Rochester, N.Y.

It's Hard to Believe

Mr. Zwerdling put together an amazing piece. I sat in my driveway with the car running for 20 minutes because I had to hear the end of the story. This piece will surely get the military's attention and maybe the attention of soldiers who need to admit they are having PTSD symptoms. It's hard to believe that, after Vietnam, our soldiers are still fighting with themselves and their superiors for help with PTSD. Mr. Z also did a great job trying to tell both sides of the story: the Army is a large organization and changing a culture of belief takes a lot of time and perseverance. This piece is a step in the right direction. What a talented journalist! A big pat on the back to him. Obviously he is one of NPR's best.

Shannon Cothran, Pensacola, Fla.

Time for Real Change

PTSD is a normal human response to witnessing or experiencing violence and feeling intense fear, horror, and helplessness. War is condoned violence. If everyone condoned peace, we could rid this world of war.

These soldiers need support from their government, not denial and punishment. It's time for real change.

Mary Ann Reynolds, Austin, Texas

My Own Driveway Moment

Daniel Zwerdling and producer Anne Hawke deserve an award for this broadcast.

What else can I say? I had a driveway moment. I am glad that NPR's market share has about doubled so that twice as many Moms and Dads heard this story.

Thomas Pirko, Kirtland, Ohio

The Shame

I was profoundly moved by this story and the betrayal these soldiers faced by the system and their former comrades. It seems so shameful that this country engages young men so brutally through combat, and ignores the impact on their emotional lives.

This story should be receiving top coverage if it weren't for the deep level of denial the government and military are in regarding Iraq.

Rori Reber, San Francisco, Calif.

Call to Arms

I haven't been so distressed by an NPR report in a very long time. I plan to go to my three congress members and demand that they initiate an investigation on the military's treatment of the mental health problems of our Iraq vets, both at Fort Carson and at other bases. And I will be telling ALL of my friends and relatives to listen to the story on the NPR Web site, and then tell their representatives to do the same.

At the same time, we must realize that our military has no monopoly on PTSD. Think of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis with PTSD, most of whom will never have any chance to receive treatment.

Betty Goebel, Thornton, Colo.

Better Soldiers

Thank you for your story. I'm often struck at the youth of our armed forces and I can only imagine how this war affects them. If the purpose of this conflict was to free the people of Iraq from a mindless, unemotional killer, why would the military expect our soldiers to be mindless and unemotional? Of course the horrors of war will affect the troops. I believe that the fact that our troops do care and are challenged by reconciling their purpose with the damage of war makes them better soldiers — soldiers capable of the emotional capacity to believe in freeing other humans from tyranny.

Laura Dixon, Leland, N.C.

An Obvious Reluctance

Is it any wonder that young people are reluctant to join the armed forces when they see that they will be abandoned if their minds are in any way affected by the horrific events they witness or effect? I believe the American people have pledged never again to blame soldiers for doing their job, whether they agree or disagree with the cause, but now to have their own brothers in arms condemning them for their mental injuries and forcing them into a "no mans land" of inadequate resources and isolation is unforgivable. We average civilians must not let this happen and must come to soldiers in need with support if their system won't do it.

Barbara Stechert, North Wales, Pa.

Barrier to Service

It is my opinion that the stigma of mental illness is still a main barrier to service. I have spent many years trying to live down and succeed in this society after Vietnam and receiving mental health services. I agree that a whole host of services should be provided to the veterans but if you get labeled with a mental health diagnosis you will be denied many of the rights afforded to others.

Dennis Moss, Temperance, Mich.

Relearning Lessons from Vietnam

It is often said that we always fight the last war when our troops are sent into battle. That is true when the commanding officers retain the lessons learned from previous conflicts. However, prior to this war the officers that had fought in Vietnam and implemented the changes that improved the U.S. military post Vietnam had either retired or were pushed aside by this administration. This resulted in a loss of the institutional memory of the U.S. military and now we are forced to relearn the lessons of Vietnam.

I am surprised at the response, or lack there of, by senior staff to this very real problem of PTSD. It would be nice if we could implement a "no soldier left behind" policy. Soldiers who come back from Iraq with PTSD have left a part of themselves on the battlefield. As a nation we owe them the treatment and therapy that it takes to make them whole again.

I am personally saddened by the poor response of the command staff at Fort Carson. It seems to me that they are attempting to show a battle readiness by emphasizing training without acknowledging the reality of going to war with troops who are suffering from PTSD or depression automatically reduces their battle readiness before the battle has begun.

People who are suffering from depression will not be able to function at the peak level that is required to be successful on the battle field.

The Pentagon's response that the US military is doing more for the troops in regard to PTSD than any other Army in the history of the world rings hollow to me. Just because we are doing more does not mean that we doing enough.

Rick Piller, San Francisco, Calif.

Shame on the Military

I am a civilian employee with the Department of the Interior (Field Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and we have a program called the "employees assistance program" where we are allowed no less than six sessions with a counselor per year concerning any issue that may be effecting our lives free of charge. Now there are times when my job can be very hazardous, but at least I am not seeing people blown to bits or being shot at. I am amazed that returning soldiers who have risked their lives are ridiculed, called cowards, and denied treatment when they are diagnosed with PTSD! Shame on the military for being so backward! You think they would have learned their lesson from Vietnam.

Daniel Lantz, Bremerton, Wash.

Perceived Weakness, Really a Strength

I was saddened and surprised to hear the hard line taken by the non commissioned officers. I thought the army had evolved from that "suck it up and drive on" attitude and finally recognized that war has a psychological affect on everyone it touches, especially the front line soldier.

What the non-coms perceive as weakness — recognizing the need for, and asking for, help — is actually a strength... the coldness of their comments, the assumption that soldiers suffering from PTSD are just goldbricking, the lack of compassion, and the enjoyment of combat that at least one sergeant took pride in, are evidence of the negative impact the war has had on these men...or were they this cold, hard, and dispassionate before they joined the army and went into leadership positions? In the future, after they leave the service, will one of them be a person we hear about on the news, whose friends and neighbors can't understand why such a quiet unassuming man "went postal" at work or the local mall?

It's bad enough that we send men and women into the hell of combat and its aftermath, and worse when we expect them not to be changed by it.

If the army were smart, treatment for PTSD would not be an option, but a requirement for all returning soldiers, with no stigma attached. After all, who can truly say that killing, seeing your friends killed, seeing the bodies of men, women, and children killed by suicide bombers, etc., is not traumatic and stressful?

George Chuckrow, Seattle, Wash.

Always Faithful

I'm a combat veteran from Korea '51-'52. 55 missions in fairly low level stuff in a B-26 from a steel mat runway in a place designated as K-9. I also know what mortar rounds sound like, guerilla pot shots zing like, as well as an 88 slamming a bunker. In our day, PTSD was unknown. However, 'Pissed To Severe Degrees' would work. To those of us lucky enough to come back without a George Washington or two, we had a saying, "Shot at and missed. S—- at and hit." Every service person was promised, no matter what, that the government would take care of those who served. Unfortunately today's kids are finding out what too many of us know for a fact: The government lies! Notice photo-ops and TV coverage tout the QRC in getting the wounded out quickly. And, of course, the great advances in prostheses. All commendable. Yet the mind set of the military against the mental damage done is swept aside and classified as a weakness in manhood or "conduct unbecoming a warrior." The system has failed miserably to administer to the mind. We haven't shown the snake pit of those out-of-sight-out-of-mind, lives ruined by the guilt and destruction of individuals and families due to the remembrance of things seen and done a promise made at signing on with the military, yet broken.

A greater embarrassment is that Idaho's Senator Larry Craig has been Chair of the Veteran's Affairs Committee. Better known as head of the administration's veteran's budget slash.

I read the check list they give to returnees at Fort Lewis, Wash. In a word, well, I can't use the word, but "unnerving" will have to do. First: A returnee wants to get the hell out of there and back home. Anything that remotely hints of the possibility of further detainment is immediately suspect and rejected. Second: Anything that smacks of any intimation of the still rampant stigma of mental illness will be dismissed. Third: Indications of problems are not always readily apparent, as those who came up with that check list should know. I further submit that whoever devised that thing had never experienced a mortar round at close range, had never seen a buddy's guts spilled out of his body, had never killed someone up close and personal or other etceteras involved in the "glories of war."

Remember the soldier slapping incident attributed to General Patton? The Fort Carson situation is a slap in the face to every one who gave, in effect, "their last full measure of devotion," has become mentally maimed for that service, yet is classified as unfit and therefore denied the necessary benefits to heal their wounds because it's too expensive?! Wounds, incidentally, primarily caused by an agenda driven administration secondarily by military action. To borrow and alter from the Marines, "Semper Fie!"

J.G. (Jim) Weiser, Boise, Idaho

Time to Walk the Walk

I was infuriated at the way the Army, and by extension the government has treated these brave, dedicated, patriotic young men. Every member of Congress and the White House should be required to hear this program. Your reporter was excellent, the stories heart-breaking and the need for help crystal clear.

The country should be allowed to see, not just hear this story by getting it before both the relevant House and Senate Committees with the soldiers in question permission. They could testify publicly. You should send a copy to Chris Matthews and Hardball or Anderson Cooper 360. I wanted this aired. Hell, I am even more livid since this government depicts itself as so pro-military.

Well, here's a chance to prove it...

Jerry Schnoll, Milwaukee, Wis.

What Can We Do?

My father was a Captain in the Army and served in Vietnam in the 60s, receiving a Purple Heart. After his return, he suffered from nightmares and didn't really enjoy things in life that he had enjoyed before. He was a warm and caring man before he went to Vietnam. When he returned he was mostly cold and sad. Thirty years later, he was diagnosed with PTSD. In therapy he revealed that had it not been for his wife and two kids he would have committed suicide. He was angry that he had lived thirty years without knowing that he could be suffering from something as a result of what happened to him in Vietnam. After beginning on the road to recovery from PTSD in the 90s, my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer (he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam) and died in 2002. The military did not take care of its veterans after Vietnam and it is happening again to the veterans of the war in Iraq. What can we do to help our veterans get the treatment they need?

Chip Begley, London, Ky.

Powerful and Inspiring

I thought this was an extraordinary piece. It was necessarily in-depth, in addition to being well-constructed and, of course, extremely poignant. I was listening to the piece while driving in my car and just couldn't stop the tears as I listened to these young men tell their stories. Furthermore, despite the fact that I arrived at my destination about halfway through the piece, I remained in the parking lot to listen to this story in its entirety. I was simply too captivated to get on with the rest of my day.

Mr. Zwerdling's piece is a paragon of investigative journalism. I am often skeptical of investigations that involve "testing on the dependent variable" — first arriving at certain assumptions and then carrying out research and asking questions. However, I feel Mr. Zwerdling did a wonderful job of counteracting this problem by using a large sample size and by asking questions at both high and low levels. As a fledgling journalist myself, I found this story to be somewhat inspiring from a journalistic perspective, and very powerful from a personal perspective.

Suemedha Sood, Arlington, Va.

Uncertain Future

My brother went to Iraq, return in the future. He has shown me pictures of dead people and told me about the things he did there. He has gone for help with his anger issues because my mom told him he needed, but he doesn't see the problem. He doesn't know how to talk to doctors about emotional issue because he was never talked about his feelings. He thinks feeling pain is weak.

Who knows how that will work out?

Maria Card, Boise, Idaho

Treatment Delayed

I have a family member who returned from Iraq. He had PTSD, everyone could tell. He was depressed and started drinking more. He had nightmares and would thrash around in the bed at night. He had asked about seeing someone about this issue, but wasn't seen. He was not offered to be seen until three to six months after he got out of the armed services.

Angel Hawkins, Deep Run, N.C.

Comprehending the consequences

This was one of the most disturbing and painful stories I have heard in years of ATC listening. I find it sadly ironic that it was followed by a news report that President Bush was reportedly outraged by the Senates refusal to confirm John Bolton. The churlish Mr. Bush should be made to listen to this report to help him comprehend the most awful consequences of his disastrous Iraq policy and feel the pain of what is truly outrageous.

Paul Sheren, Montague, Mass.

Victims of a Throw-Away Society

I believe that these soldiers are victims of our throw-away society. When they became such that the Army could no longer use them, they simply threw them away rather than to recycle them back into society. It should be noted that most of these soldiers are very young and could possibly not have learned the life skills necessary to cope with the trauma of war. I believe that if the Army expects these soldiers to risk their lives, then the soldiers are within their rights to expect the Army to protect them both physically and emotionally.

Helen Charbonneau, Marietta. S.C.

Brave Young Sergeant

Sgt. Drew Preston and the others like him who said they cannot wait to return to the battlefield, do they understand they are marking themselves as near-cannibals? They weren't saying they wanted to be patriotic, they said they enjoyed the bloody horrific activities of this war. As if it were a videogame. Wanting an exciting, outdoor job is certainly understandable, but to prefer participating in a killing-field — for fun, as the supposedly healthy soldiers were saying — has nothing to do with bravery. A need for human bloodshed and gore are traits of the very unwell. I hope Pearson gets help, as that incredibly brave young Mr. Towsley finally did.

That ending with Mr. Towsley just broke me up completely. I would like to see follow-ups of Mr. Towsley, and would like to help his cause of reaching his poor fellow-soldiers who we, America, have subjected to such horrible, mind-altering experiences, purely for politics. I worry most, I think, about the soldiers who DONT know they need help, who insist that anyone who does is weak. They sound deeply, deeply wounded, and also very dangerous to a civilized society.

L.K. Grier, New York, N.Y.

Unlearned Lessons

As I listened to Daniel Zwerdling's story about soldiers returning from the Iraq War, it brought back a lot of emotions and anger. As a Vietnam vet, I saw first hand the effects of fighting in an unpopular war. When soldiers returned from Vietnam, many were forced to suffer in silence because no one wanted to hear about their problems. The long-term debilitating effects of PTSD have been reported in medical journals and in the popular press for decades now. A lot has been learned about PTSD since that time.

But now it seems we haven't learned anything at all and are repeating the same mistakes. Our leaders promised to do better this time. Soldiers were hailed as heroes. Even if the war was not universally accepted, at least the troops would be treated with the respect that they deserved. Apparently, talk is cheap and some soldiers are not getting the treatment that they require or, worse, are being ostracized and punished for even bringing up the subject of PTSD.

For a Defense Department spokesman to say that he knew nothing about this problem seems ludicrous. They made the same statements about Abu Ghraib. It is the job of leadership to ask tough questions and deal with small problems before they get out of control. If you surround yourself with sycophants and other like-minded people, you're not likely to hear unpleasant news.

If the mindset of our military and political leaders can allow this type of behavior to occur, then we have learned nothing from the hard lessons of Vietnam. As a nation, we should be ashamed.

Lou Horwitz, Port Deposit, Md.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

This comment is in response to the way the Army deals with soldiers mental instabilities. My actual comment is that it is not just limited to the Army. On December 15, 2002, my twin boys died shortly after birth due to incompetence at the Naval Hospital where they were born, two days later my wife nearly died of the same staff infection that afflicted my sons. Three days after that, I was ordered to return to work but because I had yet to see anyone concerning the loss of my children and the near loss of my wife I just could not function. Rather than help me, my command sent me to Non-Judicial Punishment, commonly known as Captain's Mast. At the time I had been in the U.S. Navy for 13 years, so I was no stranger to my job and had exemplary performance up until then. The U.S. Military has not to this day offered any grief counseling whatsoever, I have had to seek it on my own, in my own time, with my own money and it has been a long hard road.

The U.S. Military does not deal with what it does not understand and treats everyone in a "guilty until proven innocent" manner, in other words, we enlisted are all whiners and fakers.

David Harrell, Elizabeth City, N.C.

Echoes of Agent Orange

I've never gotten as angry about an NPR story as I have about this one. As someone who has dealt with clinical depression nearly all of my life, I've had a bellyful of tough guys and galls telling me to "get over it." In my experience those who express contempt for mental illness are in deep denial about their own mental health, and often force others to bear the brunt of issues they can't or won't face.

This is like the Bonus Army and General MacArthur's patrician contempt for the WWI vets. This is like Agent Orange, where the Federal government fought like mad to deny benefits to soldiers who served in good faith. Most especially, this smacks of the film "A Few Good Men". An officer corps that treats broken soldiers like trash has no business leading anything, and few officers these days are held to account (e.g., Gen. Geoffrey Miller of Guantanamo). Coupled with the religious hazing apparently condoned at the Air Force Academy, this atrocious behavior revealed at Fort Carson suggests there's something wrong with the military leadership in Colorado.

Steve Weintz, Big Sur, Calif.

Ripples Beyond Colorado

It's so true, but the stigma does not just apply to soldiers — it applies to officers, too, and the ugliness of it all goes much farther than Ft. Carson. Several officers who served with my husband in various parts of Iraq have come back diagnosed with PTSD but are unable to get counseling. It is unfathomable to me that these guys get up the nerve to go in and talk to someone and tell them about their nightmares and the fact that they jump a mile when they hear a balloon pop at a party, and all the counselors do is hand them some pills and say, "Here, take these and go home." Unfortunately, this was the same for family members needing mental health care while the units were deployed. Two months ago, when there were 4,000 fewer people needing treatment, there was still a month to a month and a half wait for therapists. Furthermore, half the time these men and women aren't even getting to talk to licensed Psychologists or Psychiatrists... often, the therapy groups are run by volunteers (reminiscent of teen help lines). What is most unfortunate about it all, however, is the fact that you DO have some soldiers out there faking it, which makes it even harder for the Army to treat those who really do need the help. There are those that actually get night sweats and have nightmares and get really uncomfortable in big crowds or in open places, and then there are those who just hear about it and mimic the symptoms because the Army didn't turn out to be as good of an idea as the recruiter made it sound.

Alicia Turner, Germany

Don't Stereotype Victims of PTSD

First and foremost, is the danger of stereotyping PTSD. Not all victims of PTSD abuse alcohol or drugs or engage in domestic abuse. If my husband (a combat soldier of Vietnam 68/69) had abused drugs, alcohol, my son or me, we would have become one of the sad statistics of divorce among combat veterans. What breaks my heart the most about this story is that our government (which Fort Carson represents) has learned nothing from all the evidence related to PTSD. Quoting the Chaplain Dan at Denver's Veteran's Hospital (leads a support group for partners of vets with PTSD) "PTSD is a very normal reaction to an extraordinary event or events." So when we put labels on this unfortunate diagnosis it hurts everyone. The story did a good job of cycling back to the vet who described PTSD as "weak minded." I have attended reunions with my husband in the last three years with vets that served in Vietnam with him (many of them diagnosed with PTSD), and they are some pretty amazing men with incredible stories of survival not just in Vietnam but after they returned. (And I must add, some pretty amazing women that looked into those guys' eyes and saw their souls. Women who thought these men were worth fighting for when the depression that consumed them seemed hopeless to maintain a relationship.) These guys survived unbelievable circumstances and society expects them to come back and absorb themselves into normal everyday activities. After experiencing near death events most of us would view some of our everyday routines as trivial and unimportant. Why do we have songs Live Like You Were Dying that are so popular? The difference is these guys and girls are trained to kill and when they come back they have to fight with that imagery. So when they say they would go back it's because they feel they have skills to keep themselves alive and to some extent the soldiers with them. I applaud the soldiers who tried to get help, because after 32 years of marriage I can see that my husband is still fighting a war within. Weak minded? Not even close! He has two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the heart and soul of a saint. There was nothing weak about how he served his country. I'm grateful that after all he saw and did he still has a great capacity for compassion, forgiveness. For all the veterans that can admit they were profoundly affected by the devastation of war, they are the real men. They are strong enough to realize it is a very normal reaction to very abnormal circumstances. I hope something is done about the Fort Carson leadership, because these guys should not have to wait 30 years for someone to recognize that PTSD is real. Just look at some of the neurological studies done on PTSD, the evidence is quite revealing.

Judy Brown, Morrison, Colo.

Has Nothing Changed?

I was horrified listening to Daniel Zwerdling's report on soldiers suffering from PTSD are not only not receiving the necessary treatment, but are being harassed and drummed out of the service. Twenty years ago, when I was in the service, I saw Officers and NCOs mistreat individuals in my unit who had trouble with depression and other psychological problems, but I had hoped that our modern army had made a commitment to help those who suffer from the terrible mental echoes of battle. Zwerdling's report brought me close to tears when I realized that we are failing yet another generation of soldiers.

Thomas Heaney, Quincy, Calif.

My Son Suffers, Too

Thank you for this story. As a parent of an emotionally disabled Iraq vet, I couldn't help but respond. My son was with the Army's first Cavalry as a scout. His company saw a lot of action during his tour. He is a decorated vet as well receiving a medal of valor for repeated acts of heroism. The accounts of these acts were difficult to read as they brought the reality of how close to death he came to protect his fellow soldiers. When he returned home, he knew he had issues and his Army records note this while he was in Kuwait for two weeks of decompression before returning to the states. When he tried to get help he was chastised by his commanding officer and told "you're just faking and looking for an easy out" as per is medical records. He would latter recant this statement after Jacob was admitted to a locked mental health ward during redeployment training. To make a long story short what you described as a pattern at Fort Carson was also to true at Fort Riley. After his second visit to a locked ward the Army did its best to get rid of him any way they could. At the suggestion a friend who is a military councilor his mother and I became involved and with the help a local congressman he was discharged with an honorable discharge under medical conditions. After four years he felt abandoned by the people he had put his life on the line for. It has been difficult to have the war and it effects in my home every day. To feel and experience his emotional anguish has been difficult to say the least. The outside scars of a wounded soldier are easy to understand because they show. The inside ones are not and they hurt just as much and some have said maybe more. Thanks again for the story and helping to make people aware of this disservice to those who have served their county and its people.

Kim Buell, Sodus, N.Y.

Everybody Pays in the End

Thank you for this wonderful report. As a mental health professional whose job it is to evaluate and provide crisis intervention and, if necessary, hospitalization for people experiencing mental health crises, this report couldn't have come too soon! This was an amazing piece of investigational work, but there is more. This report didn't even touch on the military personnel who are depressed and suicidal, that are being told to buck up and are being re-deployed back to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are like time bombs waiting to implode or explode. It's just a question of whether they or someone else will be the victim when they reach the end of their rope. Services to these men and women must be initiated early and expanded far beyond current levels. The longer we wait, the more entrenched the problems become and the wider the circle of damage. I watched too many friends and family members come back shattered from Vietnam. Some beat their wives, some couldn't live anywhere but in the woods, some shot up their homes with loaded pistols in their sleep and couldn't trust themselves to have relationships, and some finally killed themselves to stop the memories. Few came through unscathed. We need to have open hearts and open doors for those coming home from war. So far, I don't see enough of either being provided through military or Veterans Administration channels. We cannot afford to continue cutting corners in regard to this issue. We all pay in the end.

Susan Crowe, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

This Report Was 'Grossly Inaccurate'

As an Army Officer who returned from a year in Iraq two weeks ago I think that your segment about returning soldiers is grossly inaccurate.

First, while serving in Iraq mental health specialists are available to soldiers who feel they need to talk to a professional about problems they are having. This is a service that commanders and supervisors cannot deny. I noticed that none of the soldiers you talked about mentioned seeking help while in combat. In my experience the several soldiers I have known who had severe emotional damage while serving in Iraq received help in country, some of which were evacuated back to the States for more aid.

Secondly, the majority of the soldiers which you spoke with were in the same platoon. Soldiers hang out with soldiers that they identify with. That would explain why several of the soldiers that you spoke with were drug users. Or maybe more interestingly, three of the soldiers with whom you spoke all admitted to choking their wives in their "sleep," yet to date I can not think of a single instance in which soldiers have been exposed to the type of combat that would be associated with that behavior. In my experience many of the soldiers who commit crimes punishable by either civil laws or the UCMJ commonly fabricate an excuse for their behavior. It is only natural then to assume that soldiers recently returning from Iraq would blame their lack of discipline as a soldier on what they witnessed in combat. When in reality the reason why they find themselves in trouble shortly after returning from combat is because they are suddenly exposed to stimuli they were away from for a year. I.E. drugs, alcohol, money problems, and their wives.

During the article your reporter talked about one soldier who wanted to commit suicide and how his "officer" sent a team of soldiers to his home. The reporter made this sound as though his "Officer" responded inappropriately. As a leader of men it is your duty to ensure that if someone under you has expressed suicidal thought they do not succeed in doing so. It is totally within a leader's scope of duty to send someone to the soldier's house to ensure that they do not commit suicide. Depending on the timing and situation it may in fact be totally necessary to send men under your command to detain another soldier in order to ensure their safety. In suggesting that this is anything other than in the soldier's best interest is irrational.

Let me conclude by saying that removing soldiers who can not handle combat experiences from the Army is not only in the Army's best interests, but those soldiers and the country's best interest too. Atrocities are committed by those who can not deal with their emotions in a positive way. A higher fatality rate of American service men and women would be a result of keeping Soldiers in the service that could not handle the stress of combat.

In short I could write a book about the inaccuracies of your report. I.E. "a chest full of medals" which after looking at the picture on your Web site turned out to be in reality seven, three of which you get for just signing up to serve in the Army, three more for just getting on a plane to Iraq and one, rightfully earned for wounds received in combat. (The expert marksmanship badge is the standard for infantry soldiers, and the combat infantry badge is received for being shot at) or inflating a "certificate of achievement" to a prestigious Army award. There are too many examples to site.

My suggestion is that in the future your reporters stay away from melodramatic reporting and attempt a more un-biased approach to covering the war. I would suggest using a reporter such as John Hendren (from your Washington Office) with whom I worked in Iraq and who was extremely professional.

John McLaughlin

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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

hide captionMedical 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

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

hide captionCorey 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
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

hide captionAlex 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
Sgt. Nathan Towsley

hide captionReferring 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
Platoon i i

hide captionCorey 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
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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