Military Mental Health Care Under Scrutiny Since NPR reported on soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder at Fort Carson, more soldiers and their families have reported neglect at their bases, too. Mental health specialists who work with military families say that the problem is widespread and common.
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Military Mental Health Care Under Scrutiny

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Military Mental Health Care Under Scrutiny

Military Mental Health Care Under Scrutiny

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On Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan opened the second hearing on Walter Reed in two days. Levin cited the country's moral obligation to its soldiers and he used the failures at Walter Reed to criticize the Bush administration.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Today's hearing is about another example of the lack of planning for a war that was premised on the assumption that combat operations would be swift, casualties would be minimal, and that we would be welcomed as liberators instead of being attacked by the people we liberated.

BLOCK: The Army chief of staff General Peter Schoomaker testified before the Senate committee and said top military leaders should have known about the problems. He called the military health care system a bureaucratic morass.

General PETER SCHOOMAKER (Chief of Staff, U.S. Army): I will tell you that we all run in a bureaucratic morass. Life every day in this system is like running in hip boots in a swamp and it sucks the energy out of you, every day.

BLOCK: While the Pentagon brass have been apologizing for conditions at Walter Reed, evidence suggest the problem is far bigger. Late last year, for example, NPR revealed that many soldiers who came back from Iraq to fort Carson, Colorado couldn't get the mental health care they needed - even if when they had post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. In fact, their supervisors punished some of them and kicked them out of the Army. Well, since then, we've been hearing from scores of soldiers and family members at other bases who say they have been mistreated too.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has the story.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Some of the first cases we heard came from Fort Knox in Kentucky. For instance, one year ago, Brenda Johnson(ph) was helping around a medical clinic for U.S. soldiers in Iraq - she's a nurse. She was in the middle of her second tour there. And her first lieutenant had just given her a glowing evaluation. The document reads:

(Reading) Sergeant Johnson has shown, time and time again, that she is an outstanding leader, medic and soldier.

And then, Johnson says, she started losing control.

Ms. BRENDA JOHNSON (Nurse, U.S. Army): I couldn't sleep, I got real shaky, I couldn't eat - every time I ate, I got sick. I will just vomit anything I ate and my stomach was always in knots. Nightmares, I had a real hard time going to sleep because as soon as I, you know, if I fell asleep, I'd wake up scared.

ZWERDLING: Johnson was in so much trouble that the Army medevaced her out and sent her to Fort Knox. Army document show that they diagnosed her with PTSD and depression. They kicked her out of the Army. Her file says they didn't think she could get better and be a, quote, "quality soldier," unquote.

Before they got rid of you, did Fort Knox give you any kind of intensive counseling or other intensive treatments designed to treat PTSD?

Ms. JOHNSON: No, they didn't. You know, it kind of hurts when you give somebody eight years of your life and they just kind of kick you in the curb.

ZWERDLING: Officials at Fort Knox haven't answered our request for a comment. We received calls and e-mails like Brenda Johnsons from all over the country. Here's one from an Army doctor back at Fort Benning, Georgia - quote, "I have been on both sides of this issue. As a physician screening soldiers, I was told that soldiers with PTSD were faking it. And as a soldier myself, I've had such horrendous vivid nightmares and flashbacks that I drench my sheets with sweat. But I could not find help in the Army. Even the deputy commander of my hospital brushed off my concerns," unquote.

A lot of people who have written us are parents, like Kathy Johnson(ph) in Oregon. She says when her son signed up with the Marines and flew off to Iraq, she was one of the proudest Marine moms in America.

Ms. KATHY JOHNSON(ph) (Mother of a Marine): Any veteran parades, I was there holding my son's picture up and I wore a sweatshirt that said proud Marine mother and they have let me down for what happened to our son.

ZWERDLING: She says her son won't talk to us. The way she tells the story, when her son came back last year to the base in California, he sounded like a different person. He went to the medical unit and they diagnosed him with PTSD but they didn't give them any intensive therapy. They mainly gave him pills. Her son tried cocaine one weekend to try to feel better and then he flunked the drug test.

And Kathy Johnson says, did his officers realize then that he desperately needed help? No, the Marine Corps put him in jail for 10 days and kicked him out of the service. A military officer at the base confirms her account - and Johnson says, today, her son is a stranger.

Ms. JOHNSON: He gets angry easy, and he also is 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.

ZWERDLING: And when you say he drinks a lot - what's a lot?

Ms. JOHNSON: We'll call him on the telephone and he doesn't know who we are.

ZWERDLING: I hope you don't mind me saying this but you sound really tired and depressed?

Ms. JOHNSON: I am. You have no idea what this has done to us. And I just want my son back.

ZWERDLING: We don't know for sure. Do all these stories were hearing - and we've heard dozens - do they reflect the pattern in the military or a small group of disgruntled people. Mental health specialists who work with troops and their families tell us that, unfortunately, they're hearing the same troubling accounts everyday.

Over the past six months, the Pentagon's new mental health taskforce has been visiting bases around the country to see if they think troops are getting the help they need.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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