MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick.
Since the beginning of the Iraq War, thousands and thousands of American servicemen and women have been dismissed from the service for mental conditions called personality disorders. These disorders are officially considered pre-existing conditions. They didn't happen to these soldiers during their service, and that means the government doesn't have to pay disability benefits.
Health professionals, veterans groups, and family members say many of those dismissed troops did not have mental problems before they went to Iraq. And they blame their conditions on what's called post-traumatic stress syndrome or other combat-related problems.
Coming up, we'll talk to one soldier who went through this ordeal but fought the diagnosis and eventually won on appeal.
First though, we're joined by NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. His reporting on mental health issues within the military has sparked several federal investigations.
Daniel, welcome to DAY TO DAY. And say you are a soldier diagnosed with a personality disorder, what happens to you?
DANIEL ZWERDLING: To explain that I want to take one step back. Now, Alex, suppose that you are a soldier or a Marine who comes back from the war; you got all kinds of commendations over in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now you're having screaming nightmares. You can't sleep. You're drinking until you pass out. You're throwing lamps at your wife. You can't focus well on your training at the military base. And these are very common problems. I have met dozens and dozens of troops who have them.
Now, if the medical unit at your base diagnoses you with PTSD, or severe depression, or some other mental health problem that they say was triggered by the war, well, then they're supposed to send you to intensive therapy. They try different medications. Your treatment could last for months - very, very expensive.
But if the base psychiatrist says, hey, you know what, Alex, you have a personality disorder; I think you've had mental health problems since you were 12. Well, then the military can discharge you in one or two weeks, and the government doesn't have to pay you any benefits because they say the war did not cause your problems.
CHADWICK: Well, many of these service members who have this diagnosis dispute this fact. They say I didn't have problems before I was in the military. It's gotten to be a big enough issue that Congress is addressing this in the new defense budget bill that it's preparing to send to President Bush. What are they doing, and why?
ZWERDLING: They're basically just saying something very simple, which is, look, military, from now on before you discharge somebody with personality disorder, I want you to make sure that a higher level medical person, you know, maybe even at the Pentagon, reviews it. But the basic problem is that critics suspect that military bases are deliberately kicking people out with personality disorder as a way of saving money because the government doesn't have to pay disability benefits.
I've looked into this issue and I can't find any evidence to support that sort of conspiracy theory. On the other hand, I have talked to many people, including an Army psychiatrist just a couple of weeks ago, who say they do think that officials have at least some bases do use personality disorder as a really convenient and fast way to get rid of problem troops.
CHADWICK: So how big is the problem?
ZWERDLING: So far it's impossible to know. Anecdotally, it seems like it could be a very big problem. On the other hand, the Pentagon has put out statistics in recent months that show that there have not been any increases in discharges for personality disorders since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. And that would suggest that there isn't a problem.
But I want to offer a word of caution. Anybody who has dealt with the military - and I just talked with a military official, a Marine officer about this two weeks ago - anybody who knows the military well will tell you they are infamous for putting out misleading statistics. In fact, I showed him a chart that the Marines had put out about personality disorder, and he said I would take that chart with a grain of salt.
CHADWICK: All right. Thank you, Daniel, and stay on the line with us, please, because we're joined now by William Wooldridge. He was an Army specialist in Iraq. He was dismissed from the service for having a personality disorder. He fought that discharge and later was re-diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hello, William Wooldridge. Welcome to DAY TO DAY. Tell us, how did the Army determine that you had a personality disorder? How many times did you speak with an Army psychiatrist before they gave you that diagnosis?
Mr. WILLIAM WOOLDRIDGE (Arkansas National Guard): Well, when I returned to Fort Polk, Louisiana, which was my deployment hub, I saw a doctor, I believe, two, possibly three times.
CHADWICK: How long were you a soldier, Mr. Wooldridge?
Mr.. WOOLDRIDGE: Well, this was my second actual enlistment. My first enlistment, I was enlisted from 1989 to 1992, and then I re-enlisted back in 2002. The unit that I was attached to deployed February of 2003 to Iraq.
CHADWICK: And what happened to you there?
Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: It was a very stressful situation. After a short time in country, I basically just had a collapse, a mental collapse. There's nothing that you could really put your finger on and say, yes, this happen to him and this is what's wrong with him; just a mixture of so many things that were going on in-country.
CHADWICK: So they sent you back home to be evaluated, and that's where you got this personality discharge?
Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: Yes, I returned back to Fort Polk, Louisiana in the middle of July 2003. And I have a letter here. It's part of my records. I'll find it here and I can read it to you. Okay.
It's Department of the Army. It says I hereby request a formal mental health evaluation of Specialist, will determine his fitness for remaining in the Army. This command needs to know if the soldier has any personality disorder or other psychological problems that would make him unfit for military service. I need to know if he should be discharged.
So basically I had a breakdown in the middle of Iraq, in the middle of a combat zone, and automatically it goes to a personality disorder.
CHADWICK: Well, Mr. Wooldridge, the Army psychiatrist did conclude that you had this pre-existing personality disorder, something that you were born with, a long-time mental disability, and it was not service connected. They discharged you from service. You appealed that, and a board of examination within the Department of Defense said you were right. In fact, you're suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And how are you doing now?
Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: Well, life with PTSD is like a rollercoaster. You have your good days and you have very low bad days, and you just ride it out, hoping that one day some type of normalcy will come to your life.
CHADWICK: William Wooldridge, a specialist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He's now out of the service.
Mr. Wooldridge, thank you.
Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: Yes.
CHADWICK: And we're back with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.
Well, what do you really conclude? I mean, where do you come out on this after all of your reporting? What is the situation with these soldiers in the military?
ZWERDLING: I think the big question is not what is happening with personality disorder. It's the much bigger issue, which is that there have been, by the military's own admission, tens of thousands, and you know, perhaps at this point hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines who've come back with serious mental health problems. I mean, you know, stuff that interferes with their lives and with their families and their work day-to-day. And huge numbers of these people, by the government's own admission, have had horrible time getting help.
Presidential commissions, Pentagon task forces have all agreed that the military system for dealing with mental health problems is terrible. It's not their word, but read between the lines; disgraceful. They've recommended sweeping ways to reform the system. And here we are with, you know, all of these troops coming back from the wars, many who've already fallen through the cracks, and not a whole lot has changed to make things better.
CHADWICK: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling with us from Washington.
Daniel, thank you.
ZWERDLING: Alex, thanks.
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