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Military Wives Fight Army to Help Husbands

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Military Wives Fight Army to Help Husbands

Iraq

Military Wives Fight Army to Help Husbands

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED I'm Noah Adams.

There is a formidable group of warriors out there fighting the American military. We're talking about the spouses of troops who have come back from the war with serious mental health problems such as post traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has our report.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Tammie LeCompte did not graduate from college; she's never been any kind of activist.

Had you been an organizer before, a community organizer, political organizer?

TAMMIE LeCOMPTE: No.

ZWERDLING: Had you ever written to a member of Congress before?

LeCOMPTE: No.

ZWERDLING: And she'd never even been to Washington DC, let alone Capitol Hill, but then her husband came home two years ago, after two tours in Iraq, and he was scary, he was a different man. And today Tammie LeCompte is a different woman.

(Soundbite of gavel)

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Meeting of the committee will please come to order.

ZWERDLING: Since her husband came back, Tammie LeCompte has gone from being an obedient army wife to being upset and then shocked and then desperate and then angry.

Rep. WAXMAN: Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you will give before this committee...

ZWERDLING: And today Tammie LeCompte has pulled off an amazing feat; she's caught the ear of Congress, including Henry Waxman, who chairs the House Oversight Committee.

Rep. WAXMAN: And we will focus on whether the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration are meeting the need of providing basic levels...

Ms. LeCOMPTE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members here today. My name is Tammie LeCompte, the proud wife of soldier member specialist Ryan LeCompte.

Ryan needed help and could not get it.

ZWERDLING: And here's what's even more striking than testifying to Congress. Tammie LeCompte has forced powerful officials in the U.S., Army to back down, and they're finally giving her husband the treatment doctors say he needs.

Carissa Picard runs a national group called Military Spouses for Change; she's married to an Army helicopter pilot. And she says Tammie LeCompte symbolizes how wives across the country have transformed themselves into activists.

Ms. CARISSA PICARD: When I feel like the well-being of my husband or my family is at stake, that taps into a very fundamental place for women. Okay, that's like a Mama Bear place. We're talking about protecting the people that we love.

ZWERDLING: The story begins back in 2001. Ryan LeCompte was based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. He was a new soldier, barely 21 years old. Tammie was 31.

What attracted you to Ryan?

Ms. LeCOMPTE: He was just a very good looking man. Very (unintelligible) still he is. Tall and handsome.

ZWERDLING: He's Native American. They got married.

As Tammie was telling me this history, she was sitting in the townhouse they were renting at Fort Carson. They both have children from past relationships and the kids were sprawled on the couch watching cartoons.

Family members say Ryan used to spend most of his spare time with these kids; he taught them to ride horses, how to play games.

Ms LeCOMPTE: He was fun and very outgoing; he's just so creative and he loves life.

ZWERDLING: But then LeCompte came back from his second tour in Iraq in early 2006 and he started showing the classic symptoms you've probably heard about in a lot of stories about vets.

Back in Iraq his officers hailed him as one of their best and bravest, but at home he'd become a hermit. Tammie would hear cries in the middle of the night and she find him curled in a ball on the floor, or during the day there'd be a loud noise and Ryan would drop to the ground like someone was shooting.

Ms. LeCOMPTE: You know, at first when somebody drops like that, I mean it's not funny, but it - you know, you're laughing or the kids would laugh, like what's wrong with dad? Why is he - you know, and then you start really realizing it's not funny.

ZWERDLING: But at least Ryan realized he needed help. His Army records prove it. Tammie used to be a clerk in the military's insurance programs. So she knows how to keeps files and she's put just about every document that the Army has written about LeCompte in two huge black binders.

Ms. LeCOMPTE: I have a timeline from everything, from the beginning where...

ZWERDLING: These records show that LeCompte started going to the mental health center after he got back from Iraq. The doctor sent him to classes on anger management and group therapy and they prescribed various drugs, but he didn't get intensive treatment, and LeCompte kept getting worse.

He'd showed up late for formation, he seemed disoriented, he couldn't remember orders. So as officers made him scrub the toilets and do other menial chores to punish him, LeCompte took it out at home.

Ms. LeCOMPTE: I mean he hasn't stood up and just started boxing on me or anything like if he was in a brawl. But just the name calling, the pushing out of the way, and all you can do is scream, Ryan, stop, just stop.

ZWERDLING: And what made you decide to fight to stay with him?

Ms. LeCOMPTE: Well, I'm not going to stay here and lie and say, you know, because I'd be lying to myself, and any military spouse knows that you have those moments where you just want to leave. You know, you just give up. You know, my mother, she'd say, Tammie it's not his fault. Don't leave him like this, he's sick.

ZWERDLING: Tammie LeCompte was desperate, so she went to Ryan's officers and she begged them to help. They said he was faking his symptoms, that he was an alcoholic. So Tammie went to the inspector general at Fort Carson. She asked him to investigate. He said Ryan's officers were following the rules. By now Ryan had been home for eight months and Tammie was spending so much time with her family that she'd lost her job. She started sending letter after letter to anybody she could think of - veterans groups, members of Congress. She pleaded with them to get Ryan better treatment. And finally those U.S. senators and vets wrote to Fort Carson. They asked: what's going on?

Ms. MICHELE CASSIDA (Staff Member, Fort Carson): Ryan is very lucky to have Mrs. LeCompte. I mean, I don't know if a lot of people would go through what she has been through.

ZWERDLING: That's Michele Cassida. She's worked for the Army for more than 30 years. She was one of the key staff members at Fort Carson who handled the calls and letters from Congress.

Ms. CASSIDA: Ryan LeCompte is a very sick soldier - very, very sick - and needs help. I have seen him literally deteriorate in front of my eyes.

ZWERDLING: In fact, by late last summer Ryan LeCompte had stopped talking or walking. He wouldn't eat on his own. Tammie had to spoon-feed him like a baby. But Cassida says the more Tammie LeCompte begged for help, the more his officers retaliated. And Cassida says she can understand that Ryan and Tammie might have rubbed some people the wrong way. People with PTSD can be infuriating. Tammie can be blunt and abrasive. But Cassida says that's no reason to mistreat them. For instance, Ryan's officers ordered him to line up in formation every day, even though he was almost a vegetable. So Tammie would push him to formation in a wheelchair at 5:30 every morning. The officers cited LeCompte for conduct unbecoming of a soldier, and they demoted him, and cut his pay. And then they started the process of kicking him out of the Army. Cassida shakes her head.

Ms. CASSIDA: I'm in shock. I can't believe what I'm seeing. I don't understand how they can victimize a family like they have done. This is - this is vindictiveness, this is evilness, this is meanness, this is - this is not what the Army's about.

ZWERDLING: Key commanders who were involved in LeCompte's case wouldn't talk to us about it, or didn't return our phone calls. But the base sent letters to Congress saying, quote, "LeCompte was given access to all appropriate medical and psychological treatment, and he was treated appropriately by his chain of command," unquote.

By late last year, Tammie seemed on the verge of a breakdown. They were borrowing money from relatives and friends. When I spoke with her then, she said she was crumbling. She was juggling the children and their schooling and fighting the Army, and meanwhile she was a full-time nurse for Ryan.

Ms. LeCOMPTE: I got too many worries. I'm worried about my husband, I'm worried about my kids. And there's just not 10 of me. I'm only one person.

ZWERDLING: But suddenly, just before Christmas, Tammie's two-year battle paid off. The congressional staff members and veterans groups who'd rallied around her convinced Fort Carson to send Ryan to Walter Reed here in Washington D.C. And true, Walter Reed has suffered its own scandals, but it has great doctors.

When I walked into Ryan's room, he was slumped on the edge of his bed, like a frail 90-year-old in a nursing home.

Ryan, I know that you're probably not in the mood to be interviewed, but can I ask you a few questions?

His head was drooped over his chest. He was staring vacantly at the floor. But finally a slight nod. I could ask another question. On the day I was visiting, Ryan had been at Walter Reed for a few weeks.

How long have you been here? Do you know?

Mr. RYAN LeCOMPTE (Special Forces, U.S. Army): Nuh-uh.

ZWERDLING: You don't know?

The team of psychiatrists in Ryan's case had already made their diagnosis. He had PTSD, and he was so depressed he was shutting down. The psychiatric manual calls this major depressive disorder severe with catatonic features. Officials at the Pentagon refused to let Ryan's doctors talk with me, but sources who worked with them say the doctors believe that Ryan might have died if Tammie's supporters hadn't convinced commanders at Fort Carson to send him to Walter Reed.

As we're sitting in Ryan's hospital room, two of the most influential supporters walked in.

Mr. JAMES PITCHFORD (Office of Senator Christopher Bond): Ryan, James Pitchford. Just call me Pitch. You remember Krista?

Ms. KRISTA LAMOREAUX (Office of Senator Tim Johnson): Hi, Ryan, I'm Krista. I came by right after you checked in here, but...

ZWERDLING: James Pitchford is one of the top staff members in Congress who focuses on military issues. He works for Senator Kit Bond, the influential Republican from Missouri. Krista Lamoreaux works for a Democrat, Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

Mr. PITCHFORD: Well, Ryan, Krista and I are both here just to express our support on behalf of our bosses, Senator Bond and Senator Johnson.

ZWERDLING: And their bosses have a lot of clout. Commanders at Fort Carson sent Ryan to Walter Reed only after congressional aides hinted that the senators might make trouble. And Pitchford says none of this would have happened without Tammi LeCompte. He says Tammie reminds of him Erin Brockovich. That's the woman they made a hit movie about, after she fought a corporation that was poisoning people.

Mr. PITCHFORD: She's a pit bull. And in fact, I sent a note to Tammie earlier today, and I said, you know, she ought to go ask Julia Roberts if she'd liked to do a story about Tammie and what she's had to do to protect Ryan's career, protect his health. And it was because of Tammie; she is a fighter.

ZWERDLING: Do you think you'll get your husband back?

Ms. LeCOMPTE: I don't know. I know he may not ever be the 100 percent Ryan that I know, but my goodness, just to have 30, 40 percent, I'd be happy.

ZWERDLING: The doctors at Walter Reed have sent Ryan LeCompte home now to his reservation on South Dakota. He's getting therapy and medical care at the VA. But officials in the Army won't say whether they're still going to punish LeCompte, as they had planned, or whether they'll finally retire him with honor and all his benefits.

Meanwhile, Tammie says Ryan's walking again with a cane. He's talking a little, and he feeds himself. And Tammie says sometimes he even smiles.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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