Military Mental Health Care Under Scrutiny

Listener E-Mails

NPR has received scores of e-mails from U.S. troops and their family members, urging us to investigate specific allegations about the lack of mental-health care at military bases across the country. Read excerpts from some of those e-mails.

Army generals are scrambling to apologize for the scandal over poor medical care and deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. But the evidence shows that the problems extend beyond the Army's flagship hospital.

Late last year, for instance, an NPR investigation found that many soldiers who returned from Iraq to Fort Carson, in Colorado, couldn't get the mental health care they needed — even when they had post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In fact, their supervisors punished them and kicked them out of the Army. Since then, NPR has received scores of e-mails and calls from soldiers and family members at other bases who say they've being neglected, too.

Some of the first cases we heard came from Fort Knox, in Kentucky.

Consider: One year ago, an Army nurse, Brenda Johnson, was helping to run a medical clinic for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. She was in the middle of her second tour there, and her first lieutenant had just given her a glowing evaluation: "Sgt. Johnson has shown time and time again," the document declares, "that she is an outstanding leader, medic and soldier."

But then, Johnson says, she started losing control. "I couldn't sleep," she told NPR. "I got real shaky. Every time I ate I got sick, just vomited everything I ate, my stomach was always in knots. Nightmares — I had a real hard time going to sleep, 'cause if I'd fall asleep, I'd wake up scared."

The Army medivacked Johnson out of Iraq and sent her to Fort Knox, where, according to Army documents, the medical staff diagnosed her with PTSD and depression. Johnson says Fort Knox never provided intensive therapy or other treatments designed to help cure her depression and PTSD. She went briefly to a private therapist, but had to quit because she couldn't afford it. A few months later, her officers discharged her from the Army, despite her protests. A document in her file states that she was "not likely" to become "a quality soldier."

Today, Johnson sounds bitter.

"It kind of hurts when you give somebody eight years of your life, and they just kind of kick you to the curb," she says. Officials at Fort Knox haven't answered our request for comment.

NPR has received calls and e-mails like Brenda Johnson's from all over the country. (Read more e-mails.) Many of the people who've written are parents — including Kathy Johnson (no relation) in Oregon. Johnson says that when her son signed up with the Marines and flew off to Iraq, she became one of the biggest Marine boosters in America.

"Any veterans' parade, I was there, holding my son's picture up," she says. "I wore a sweatshirt that said 'Proud Marine Mother.' And they have let me down for what happened to our son."

Johnson says her son won't talk to NPR; he won't talk to his own family about what has happened to him since he went to fight in Iraq. She asked us not to use his name, because she's hoping to persuade the Marines to reopen his case, and she's worried that officials might retaliate if they hear this story.

Here is Johnson's account: When her son returned last year to the Marine base in California, he sounded like a different person. The staff at the medical unit diagnosed him with PTSD, but their treatment focused more on medications than on therapy. Her son tried cocaine one weekend, to try to feel better, and promptly flunked a drug test. Johnson argues that his officers should have realized that her son desperately needed help, but they punished him instead: They locked him up in jail for 10 days, then discharged him from the service. An official at the Marine base who's familiar with the case confirmed Johnson's account to NPR.

Johnson says that today, her son sometimes seems like a stranger.

"He gets angry easy," she says, haltingly, "and he's also afraid to be alone. But the main thing I'm concerned with is that he's turned to alcohol, and this was not typical of my son."

In fact, she says, he gets so drunk that "we'll call him on the telephone and he doesn't know who we are."

"You have no idea what this has done to us," Johnson says, starting to sob. "I just want my son back."

NPR has heard dozens of similar accounts. It is still unclear whether such stories reflect a pattern in the military or a small group of disgruntled people. But mental-health specialists who work with troops and their families tell NPR that, unfortunately, they're hearing these same troubling accounts every day.

Over the past six months, the Pentagon's new Mental Health Task Force has been visiting bases around the country, to see if they think troops are getting the help they need. Their report is due in May.

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

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

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

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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