Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Michelle York was reprinted in the Spring 2008 Citizen Soldier
Peace marchers in Mexico, N.Y., on their way to Fort Drum, where they plan to rally on Saturday, which is Armed Forces Day. Mary Buttolph for The New York Times
CENTRAL SQUARE, N.Y. - On Wednesday, Charlie Price was smoking a cigarette and sitting outside his restaurant, Charlie's Place, on a two-lane stretch of highway on the outskirts of town.
He watched as a small group protesting the war in Iraq marched toward him, carrying peace signs and waving at the cars and tractor-trailers whizzing by. 'I don't think it's going to do any good,' Mr. Price said of their efforts. 'I want to get out of there, too, but I don't think this is the way.'
Yet once the protesters, headed for Fort Drum, more than 50 miles away, reached him, Mr. Price eagerly offered them water and a place to rest - a more pleasant welcome than they had received from many others along the way.
Carmen Viviano-Crafts, 23, of Syracuse, who was carrying a small cardboard sign that read, 'Bring home my boyfriend,' said that some people 'gave us the finger and stuff like that.'
Since the war in Iraq began five years ago, the Second Brigade at Fort Drum has put in four tours.
For the past week, opponents of the war have taken several routes through the conservative and largely rural reaches of upstate New York - small communities that have sent many of their young men and women into the military right after high school and have paid a disproportionate price.
On Saturday, which is Armed Forces Day, protesters ranging from peace activists to Iraq Veterans Against the War will hold a daylong rally outside Fort Drum. What they lack in numbers - there were only about 40 on the road on Wednesday - they have made up for in passion, having walked about 80 miles so far.
The marchers started from several places, including Rochester, Ithaca and Utica, and merged on Wednesday, signifying the beginning of their final trek toward Fort Drum, just north of Watertown, near the Canadian border.
Planners say they have a dual message: to protest both the war and what they see as poor treatment of veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Wednesday, marchers passed through the town of Mexico, home to Joseph C. Godfrey, 54, a business owner whose three children - a daughter and two sons - all chose to join the military.
One son, Joseph, returned from a tour in Iraq in October 2004, developed a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder and was medically discharged. While his family was trying to get him counseling, Joseph began drinking heavily. He was robbed and murdered four months after his discharge as he walked home from a bar.
'We felt right from the beginning that if he'd been at a veterans' hospital, he wouldn't have been at the bar,' Mr. Godfrey said.
Mr. Godfrey's other son, Justin, 24, has already served one tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. In August, he will again depart for Iraq.
When Mr. Godfrey - who joined the antiwar group 'Military Families Speak Out' after Joseph's death - learned that marchers were coming through his town, he arranged for them to sleep overnight at the First United Methodist Church in Mexico, about 10 miles from here, even though he feared that the pastor might be criticized by parishioners.
'We're pointing out some of the injustices,' Mr. Godfrey said. 'It's everybody's responsibility to try and do what they can. And for most of us, it's not a lot, it's the little things. The march is one of them.'
The marchers are an eclectic group. Some are die-hard protesters. Some are soldiers' relatives who spontaneously joined after seeing the small parade pass through their towns.
Many of them are veterans, including an 89-year-old man who fought in World War II. He rides in a car along the marchers' route, and meets the group each evening when they stop to rest. At each town, they try to engage the community in conversation.
'We're really not here to argue with people,' said Vicki Ryder, 66, who is driving along with her dog, Harry, who sits in the back seat, wearing a shirt that reads, 'Bones Not Bombs.' Along the way, several people have screamed at them, the organizers said, but a far greater percentage of people have expressed support.
'Many may have believed in the principle of the war at the start, but now they're saying that they want the soldiers to come back,' said Kathleen Castania, 59, an organizer who lives in Rochester. Whatever the reaction they draw, the organizers say they are making headway, both emotionally and physically.
'There is some apprehension' in the towns, said Tod Ensign, the director of Different Drummer Café, a veterans'-support organization in Watertown. 'But I don't believe this has ever been done before anywhere in the country. This is a first step.'
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 19, 2008 Because of an editing error, an article on Thursday about a string of weeklong antiwar marches in upstate New York, culminating at Fort Drum on Saturday, misstated, in some copies, the number of years since the war in Iraq began. It started five years ago, in March 2003, not six years ago.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2008 Citizen Soldier
One of the bedrock principles of our criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence. This means that when someone is accused of a crime he or she has the right to try to prove their innocence by challenging the prosecutor's evidence and offering their own witnesses and/or evidence to rebut the charges before a jury of their peers.
Commanding General Michael Oates has undermined this fundamental right by publishing the photographs and identities of Ft Drum soldiers who've been arrested for drunk driving in the four most recent issues of the base newspaper, "The Blizzard." The paper has carried photos and news notes about each Drum soldier who's been arrested for drinking while driving. Oates has told reporters that he is doing this to combat a growing tendency among soldiers to drink and drive. He apparently believes that by humiliating those accused of drunk driving others will be deterred from this behaviour. He also hasn't stated whether the newspaper will publish retractions or apologies for those soldiers who are eventually acquitted of DWI charges or have their convictions overturned on appeal. Clearly, the stigma of having one's photo and description of one's alleged crime can have serious repercussions for soldiers who are rated for their personal conduct as well as their job performance.
In an interview with the New York Times (3/8/08) Oates stated; "I'm aware that there are people who aren't happy with this, but I felt compelled to do something. When you drink and drive you place everyone around you at risk." He stated that his goal wasn't so much to humiliate those charged as it was to deter others from driving drunk.
Members of the Iraq Veterans Against War (IVAW) at Ft Drum noted that many of the 48 soldiers who had their photos printed in the first Blizzard story, had returned from Iraq combat last November with the Second Brigade. "When you return to the base after a month or so of leave, that's when PTSD often starts to kick in," commented Sp/4 Eli Wright.
As far as is known, no other US military base newspaper currently publishes such photographs. A few local branches of government, particularly in New Mexico also follow this practice of printing photos and news about those accused of DWI.
Citizen Soldier attorneys have been researching the possiblity of a federal lawsuit to challenge Oates' policy as an unconstitutional abridgment of due process rights. They are also discussing the problem with the New York State Civil Liberties Union, based in Syracuse.
"While the incidence of drunk driving may have increased around Ft Drum since 10th Mountain troops have been forced to endure multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, wouldn't it make more sense to expand the mental health services available to combat-stressed soldiers rather than simply ridiculing those who self-medicate with alcohol?" asked Tod Ensign, Citizen Soldier's director.
Since 9/11, one Army division has spent more time in Iraq than any other group of soldiers: the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, New York.
Over the past 6 years and and six months, their 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) has been the most deployed brigade in the army. As of this month, the brigade had completed its fourth tour of Iraq. All in all, the soldiers of BCT have spent 40 months in Iraq.
At what cost? According to a February 13 report issued by the Veterans for America's (VFA) Wounded Warrior Outreach Program, which is dedicated to strengthening the military mental health system, it is not just their bodies that have been maimed and, in some cases, destroyed. Many of these soldiers are suffering from severe mental health problems that have led to suicide attempts as well as spousal abuse and alcoholism.
Meanwhile, the soldiers of the 2nd BCT have been given too little time off in between deployments: In one case they had only six months to mentally "re-set"; following an eight-month tour in Afghanistan -- before beginning a 12-month tour in Iraq.
Then, in April 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided to extend Army tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months -- shortly after the BCT had passed what it assumed was its halfway mark in Iraq.
As the VFA report points out, "Mental health experts have explained that 'shifting the goalposts' on a soldier's deployment period greatly contributes to an increase in mental health problems."
Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that, during its most recent deployment, the 2nd BCT suffered heavy casualties. "Fifty-two members of the 2nd BCT were killed in action (KIA)," the VFA reports and "270 others were listed as non-fatality casualties, while two members of the unit remain missing in action (MIA)."
This level of losses is unusual. "On their most recent deployment," the VFA report notes, "members of the 2nd BCT were more than five times as likely to be killed as others who have been deployed to OEF and OIF and more than four times likely to be wounded." One can only wonder to what degree depression and other mental health problems made them more vulnerable to attack.
When they finally returned to Fort Drum, these soldiers faced winter conditions that the report describes as "dreary, with snow piled high and spring still months away. More than a dozen soldiers reported low morale, frequent DUI arrests, and rising AWOL, spousal abuse, and rates of attempted suicide. Soldiers also reported that given the financial realities of the Army, some of their fellow soldiers had to resort to taking second jobs such as delivering pizzas to supplement their family income."
What has the army done to help the soldiers at Fort Drum? Too little.
In recent months, VFA reports, it has been contacted by a number of soldiers based at Fort Drum who are concerned about their own mental health and the health of other members of their units. In response, VFA launched an investigation of conditions at Fort Drum, and what it found was shocking.
Soldiers told the VFA that "the leader of the mental health treatment clinic at Fort Drum asked soldiers not to discuss their mental health problems with people outside the base. Attempts to keep matters 'in house' foster an atmosphere of secrecy and shame," the report observed "that is not conducive to proper treatment for combat-related mental health injuries."
The investigators also discovered that "some military mental health providers have argued that a number of soldiers fake mental health injuries to increase the likelihood that they will be deemed unfit for combat and/or for further military service."
The report notes that a "conversation with a leading expert in treating combat psychological wounds" confirmed "that some military commanders at Fort Drum doubt the validity of mental health wounds in some soldiers, thereby undermining treatment prescribed by civilian psychiatrists" at the nearby Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, NY.
"In the estimation of this expert, military commanders have undue influence in the treatment of soldiers with psychological wounds," the report noted. "Another point of general concern for VFA is that Samaritan also has a strong financial incentive to maintain business ties with Fort Drum -- a dynamic [that] deserves greater scrutiny."
Because some soldiers do not trust Samaritan, the report reveals that a number of "soldiers have sought treatment after normal base business hours at a hospital in Syracuse, more than an hour's drive from Watertown ... because they feared that Samaritan would side with base leadership, which had, in some cases, cast doubt on the legitimacy of combat-related mental health wounds.
"In one case," the report continued, "after a suicidal soldier was taken to a Syracuse hospital, he was treated there for a week, indicating that his mental health concerns were legitimate. Unfortunately, mental health officials at Fort Drum had stated that they did not believe this soldier's problems were bona fide."
According to the VFA, the problem of military doctors refusing to back soldiers with mental health problems is widespread: "VFA's work across the country has confirmed that soldiers often need their doctors to be stronger advocates for improved treatment by their commanders and comrades. For instance, soldiers need doctors who are willing to push back against commanders who doubt the legitimacy of combat-related mental health injuries."
While talking to soldiers at Fort Drum, VFA also discovered "considerable stigma against mental health treatment within the military and pressure within some units to deny mental health problems as a result of combat.
Some soldiers who had been in the military for more than a decade stated that they lied on mental health questionnaires for fear that if they disclosed problems, it would reduce their likelihood of being promoted."
Soldiers at Fort Drum are not alone. In an earlier report titled "Trends in Treatment of America's Wounded Warriors" VFA disclosed that leaders of the military mental health treatment system have been warning Department of Defense leadership of the magnitude of the mental health crisis that is brewing.
A report by the Army's Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) that was released last May found that the percentage of soldiers suffering "severe stress, emotional, alcohol or family problem[s]" had risen more than 85 percent since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. MHAT also found that 28 percent of soldiers who had experienced high-intensity combat were screening positive for acute stress (i.e., Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD).
Finally, MHAT disclosed that soldiers who had been deployed more than once were 60 percent more likely to screen positive for acute stress (i.e., PTSD) when compared to soldiers on their first deployment.
VFA's most recent report notes points out that, despite these warnings, soldiers at Fort Drum do not have access to the care they need: "More than six years after large-scale military operations began in Afghanistan and, later, in Iraq, a casual observer might assume that programs would have been implemented to ensure access for Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division to mental health services on base. Unfortunately, an investigation by VFA has revealed that [soldiers] who recently returned from Iraq must wait for up to two months before a single appointment can be scheduled ...
"Given the great amount of public attention that has been focused on the psychological needs of returning service members, a casual observer might also assume that these needs would have been given a higher priority by Army leaders and the National Command Authority -- the two entities with the greatest responsibility for ensuring the strength of our Armed Forces. These needs have long been acknowledged but," the report concludes " there has been insufficient action."
Last month the army tried putting a band-aid on the problems at Fort Drum by sending three Army psychiatrists from Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) to the Fort D on a temporary basis to treat the large influx of returning soldiers requiring mental health care. But, as the VFA points out, "this is only a temporary fix", as the Walter Reed-based psychiatrists will likely return to Washington, DC, within a few weeks.
Fort Drum will again be left with the task of treating thousands of soldiers with far too few mental health specialists. In addition, for those service members who were initially treated by psychiatrists from Walter Reed, their care will suffer from discontinuity, as their cases will be assigned a new mental health professional on subsequent visits."
And the war drags on. Earlier this month, the UK Times reported that "the conservative Washington think tank that devised the "surge" of US forces in Iraq [the American Enterprise Institute] now has come up with a plan to send 12,000 more American troops into southern Afghanistan.
A panel of more than 20 experts convened by the (AEI) has also urged the administration to get tough with Pakistan. "The US should threaten to attack Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in lawless areas on the border with Afghanistan if the Pakistan military did not deal with them itself, the panel concluded."
Where do conservatives expect to find those troops?
More soldiers are likely to suffer the fate of the soldiers at Fort Drum. They will be sent back to combat, again and again -- until finally, they break. Soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression or a host of other mental problems are not in a good position to protect themselves. Sending them back only guarantees that fatalities will rise.
This article, by Kirsten Scharnberg, was originally published in the Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2007
Veterans defend their right to question the war
Chicago:The young combat veteran stared at the letter in disbelief when it arrived in his mailbox a few months ago.
The Marine Corps was recommending him for "other than honorable discharge." The letter alleged he had violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice by wearing part of his uniform during an anti-war rally. Furthermore, the letter accused him of being "disloyal," a word hard to swallow for a man who had risked his life to serve his nation.
"All this because I have publicly opposed the war in Iraq since I came back from it," said former Marine Sgt. Liam Madden, 22.
Madden is not alone.
At least two other combat veterans who have returned from tours in Iraq and become well-known anti-war advocates have seen the military recommend them for less-than-honorable discharges. One of them is a young man 80 percent disabled from two tours who was threatened with losing his veteran's disability benefits if he continued to protest in uniform.
Critics - including some groups that have been the most supportive of the war - say the crackdown on these men constitutes a blatant attempt to quiet dissension in the ranks at the very time more and more members of the armed forces are publicly questioning the war they are being sent to fight.
"I may disagree with their message, but I will always defend their right to say it," said Gary Kurpius, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in a scathing statement he released this month under the headline, "VFW to Corps: Don't Stifle Freedom of Speech."
"Trying to punish fellow Americans for exercising the same democratic rights we're trying to instill in Iraq is not what we're about," Kurpis concluded.
The military has been quick to defend its decision to punish the men, stating that its policies regarding acceptable forms of protest are quite clear. Military guidelines state that troops may attend demonstrations only in the United States, only when they are off base and off duty, and, most critically, only when they are out of uniform.
"We don't restrict free speech," Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said. "It's the uniform that gets people in trouble. When you wear the uniform, you are representing the armed service behind that uniform, and it is against the military code of justice to protest in uniform."
Madden and the two other Marines were clearly documented wearing at least part of their uniforms at public protests. (Though all three had completed their active duty service, they remained reservists; the military argued that the Pentagon's conduct codes still applied to them, an assertion that seems likely to make its way to federal court.)
The military, with its hierarchal rank structure and absolute adherence to following orders, has never been an institution that takes kindly to debate from within. But today, as an increasingly unpopular war drags on and troops are being sent on second, third or fourth combat tours, the volume of criticism from veterans and even those on active duty is reaching a fevered pitch.
Perhaps the most telling part of such criticism is how open disgruntled troops are becoming despite the risk to their careers - signing their names to furious letters printed in military-owned newspapers; speaking on the record to reporters in Iraq about how badly the mission is going; writing members of Congress. And then there are the protests in uniform, a throwback to the Vietnam War era, when veterans such as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., denounced the war in weathered fatigues, throwing away their medals.
Many of the protests involving vets in uniform are all-out street theater, such as one in Washington last spring where protesters staged a mock patrol, manhandling people at simulated gunpoint in order to illustrate how they say Iraqis are treated by American troops. Just last week in Chicago, a similar protest took place. The intended subtext of the uniformed protests is apparent: that protesters have additional credibility because they are denouncing a war they have witnessed firsthand, that the very uniforms now being used in protest have walked the real-life battlefield.
"Guys like us - veterans who served but then came to believe the war is not only wrong but illegal - are not who the military wants speaking on a national stage," Madden said.
If Madden and the other Marines initially feared their high-profile discharge cases would serve to silence protest, the opposite seems to be slowly and quietly happening. The men's cases have spurred dissenting troops to find creative ways to voice their disapproval of the war while remaining well within military guidelines.
Take, for example, DOD Directive 7050.6. It expressly provides the right of service members to complain and to request redress of their grievances, including to members of Congress. In recent months some 2,000 active-duty and reserve troops have used the protection of that directive to sign "An Appeal for Redress," an initiative that sends troops' demand for an end of the war directly to Congress.
The wording of the appeal is intended to at once be patriotic and respectful while also unequivocally anti-war: It begins, "As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform." It ends: "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home."
Of the three Marines caught protesting in uniform, the case of former Cpl. Cloy Richards has garnered the least public attention-but the most within military circles. The 23-year-old from Missouri has been deemed 80 percent disabled from two tours in Iraq; he agreed this month before a military discharge review board that he would no longer protest in uniform in order to keep his honorable discharge and his veterans benefits that come to some $1,300 per month.
But that hasn't silenced Richards' protest. He now attends anti-war demonstrations in civilian clothes; his mother attends as well, wearing his old uniform for him.
Others are also creative. A young infantryman based at Ft. Drum, in Watertown, N.Y., home to the 10th Mountain Division, well knows the fine balancing act it is to be a uniformed member of the military and a committed anti-war activist. Phillip Aliff - he asked that his rank not be used, saying that would be against regulation - is the president of the Ft. Drum chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Once a week, Aliff and the other IVAW members finish their duty day in uniform, change into civilian clothes and drive off base to meet at the Different Drummer, a cafe in downtown Watertown that is modeled on the anti-war coffeehouses of the Vietnam War era.
"I'm definitely walking the line," Aliff said, admitting that none of his direct commanders know of his anti-war activities. "But we who protest have a collective experience. We took part in it - we did the midnight raids and patrols, we caused the fear in the Iraqi people - so when even we say it's wrong, that carries some real credibility."
The Ft. Drum group has grown from two members when it was launched two months ago to 12 members today. Aliff said the members encourage each other to speak out despite the fear of reprisal that comes with doing so.
"None of us wants to get in trouble," Aliff said. "None of us wants to lose our jobs or our GI bills or our benefits. But we also feel we have to be willing to do what's right."
By meeting off base and out of uniform, the Iraq Veterans Against the War members stay just inside the line of legality for military code. They don't distribute literature on base or openly recruit new members at work.
"There are so many ways to stay within military law," Aliff said. "We know we have something to say so we are finding legal ways in which to say it."
A Zogby poll last year showed that war critics like Aliff may not be entirely on the fringes of the mainstream military. The poll of 944 U.S. military personnel in Iraq, conducted by Zogby International and Le Moyne College, found that 72 percent of those polled believed the U.S. should pull out within one year.
"The unrest has been churning below the surface for a while," said Madden, who still is waiting to see what will become of his less-tha
Soldiers from Fort Drum are bearing a disproportionate burden of the costs of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the mental health care system at Fort Drum is not meeting the demands of this burden.
Of all U.S. Army divisions, the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, New York, has been the most affected by our country’s crushing recent deployment cycle. Since September 11, 2001, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) (1) is the most deployed brigade in the Army, having recently completed its fourth tour (the Appendix contains the 2nd BCT’s post-9/11 deployment history). In all, the 2nd BCT has been deployed for more than 40 months since 9/11. (2)
Compounding the difficulties facing members of the 2nd BCT is the Army-wide problem of inadequate dwell time (i.e., the time between deployments to readjust, rest, retrain, reconstitute, visit family and friends, and integrate new unit members). None of the 2nd BCT’s three dwell periods has risen to the Army’s traditional goal of a 2:1 dwell time to deployed time ratio for active Army units. One of the dwell periods for the 2nd BCT was only six months, after having been deployed to Afghanistan for eight months and before being deployed to Iraq for another 12 months. Fortunately, Army leadership—most notably General George Casey, Jr., the current Chief of Staff of the Army—has been vocal in stating that the problem of inadequate dwell time must be fixed. In his words: “…it’s so important to extend the time that they [Soldiers] spend at home… [Current deployment policies are] not something that we can sustain over time, and that’s one of the key elements of putting ourselves back in balance, to get to 18 months or so dwell [time]…” (3)
Further complicating the challenges facing members of the 2nd BCT is the regrettable decision, announced in April 2007 by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to extend Army tours in Iraq from 12 to 15 months. Soldiers from the 2nd BCT noted the greatly dispiriting effect of this policy shift, which was announced shortly after the BCT had passed what it assumed was its half-way deployment mark. Mental health experts have informed Veterans for America (VFA) that “shifting the goalposts” on a Soldier’s deployment period greatly contributes to an increase in mental health problems within units.
Finally, the intensity of the combat experienced by the 2nd BCT is remarkable. During its most recent deployment, 52 members of the 2nd BCT were killed in action (KIA), 270 others were listed as non-fatality casualties, and two members of the unit remain missing in action (MIA). When compared to all who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the intensity of combat for the 2nd BCT is quite clear. On their most recent deployment, members of the 2nd BCT were more than five times as likely to be killed as others who have been deployed to OEF and OIF and more than four times likely to be wounded. This level of combat will bring with it considerably higher rates of mental health challenges for members of the 2nd BCT than other units that have served in OEF and OIF and will merit considerably closer attention by Army and Pentagon leadership to reduce the likelihood that these Soldiers are failed by the already-overburdened mental health treatment system. The 1st BCT of the 10th Mountain Division is also among the most deployed Army brigades. Being heavily deployed is nothing new for the 10th Mountain Division. In the 1990s, units from the division were also among the most deployed in the Army.
In recent months, VFA has been contacted by a number of Soldiers based at Fort Drum who are concerned about their mental health as well as that of members of their units. For this reason, VFA launched an investigation of conditions at Fort Drum, focusing especially on the mental health treatment capacity there and the needs of Soldiers who have served in combat.
As discussed in a recent VFA report—Trends in Treatment of America’s Wounded Warriors (4) — VFA has visited every major military facility in and out of the United States. Our work has revealed a military mental health treatment system that is under severe stress. Leaders of the military mental health treatment system have taken steps in recent years to warn DoD leadership of the magnitude of the crisis that is brewing in this area, as well as steps that need to be taken to manage, if not avoid, this crisis. VFA is proud to work with those who have given these warnings—as well as with a group of bipartisan allies on Capitol Hill and responsive leaders in the Pentagon and on military bases—to create a world-class system for treating combat-related mental health issues. Given the magnitude of the challenges facing Soldiers who been in combat— as well as their families—there remains a great deal of work to be done, but VFA remains quite hopeful that with the considerable attention that has been placed on the needs of our honorable servicemembers that progress will continue to be made toward this goal.
The Challenges at Fort Drum—and Beyond
Generally speaking, winter conditions at Fort Drum are dreary, with snow piled high and spring still months away. More than a dozen Soldiers reported low morale, frequent DUI arrests, and rising AWOL, spousal abuse, and rates of attempted suicide. (5) Soldiers also reported that given the financial realities of the Army, some of their fellow Soldiers had to resort to taking second jobs such as delivering pizzas to supplement their family income. More than six years after large-scale military operations began in Afghanistan and, later, in Iraq, a casual observer might assume that programs would have been implemented to ensure access for Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division to mental health services on base. Unfortunately, an investigation by VFA has revealed that these brave servicemembers who recently returned from Iraq must in fact wait for up to two months before a single appointment can be scheduled. In short, access to care for our returning warriors at Fort Drum is woefully inadequate.
Given the great amount of public attention that has been focused on the psychological needs of returning servicemembers, a casual observer might also assume that these needs would have been given a higher priority by Army leaders and the National Command Authority—the two entities with the greatest responsibility for ensuring the strength of our Armed Forces. These needs have long been acknowledged but there has been insufficient action.
Shortly after Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) began, the Army fielded the first Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT). This first team has since been followed by three others that have all released reports. The most recent of these reports, MHAT IV, was completed in November 2006 and released to the public in May 2007. MHAT IV found that the percentage of Soldiers with “severe stress, emotional, alcohol or family problem[s]” had risen more than 85 percent since the beginning of OIF. (6) Even more disconcerting, MHAT IV found that 28 percent of Soldiers who had experienced high-intensity combat were screening positive for acute stress (i.e., Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD).(7)
Further highlighting the shockingly high level of mental health problems of returning combat Soldiers, the Department of Defense’s Task Force on Mental Health reported in June 2007 that the psychological needs of combat servicemembers and their families was “daunting and growing.” (8) The Task Force released findings that showed that more than one-third of members of the active Army who returned from combat experienced some mental health problems. (9) The Task Force also noted that the Army had far too few qualified mental health professionals and that the future of Army mental health care was bleak. In addition, MHAT IV found that Soldiers who had deployed more than once were 60 percent more likely to screen positive for acute stress (i.e., PTSD) when compared to Soldiers on their first deployment.(10) Psychological injuries have been described as the “signature injuries” of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for good reason.
The Great Needs of the 2nd BCT
When VFA visited Fort Drum shortly after the 2nd BCT returned from Iraq, we found that even in the early days of the brigade’s return stateside some Soldiers requiring mental health treatment had to wait up to two months for a mental health appointment. This alone was greatly troubling, but VFA further feared that wait times would increase dramatically once the members of the 2nd BCT returned from block leave around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Generally speaking, members of the 2nd BCT were anxious to return home immediately after their deployment ended, which would further decrease the number of Soldiers manifesting and/or admitting symptoms of combat-related mental health problems. During VFA’s visit, Fort Drum officials stated that they were hoping to bring additional mental health specialists to the base, but given the harsh winters in the Fort Drum area and the considerable distance from major metropolitan areas, the officials admitted the considerable difficulty in recruiting mental health professionals.
In early January 2008, about two months after the 2nd BCT returned from Iraq, three Army psychiatrists from Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) were assigned to Fort Drum on a temporary basis to treat the large influx of Soldiers requiring mental health care. Along with the three psychiatrists on base, these doctors are working to greatly reduce the wait time for Soldiers requiring mental health care. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary fix, as the Walter Reed-based psychiatrists will likely return to Washington, DC, within a few weeks. Fort Drum will again be left with the task of treating thousands of Soldiers with far too few mental health specialists. (11) In addition, for those servicemembers who were initially treated by psychiatrists from Walter Reed, their care will suffer from discontinuity, as their cases will be assigned a new mental health professional on subsequent visits. (12)
One challenge facing Fort Drum Soldiers is the absence of a hospital on the base. To augment Fort Drum’s mental health treatment capabilities, Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, NY, provides in-patient mental health treatment for some Fort Drum soldiers. (13) In the past year, Samaritan has increased the number of in-patient beds in its psychiatric unit from 24 to 32 (14) — an increase of 33 percent. One concern identified by VFA in a recent conversation with a leading expert in treating combat psychological wounds is the sense that military commanders doubt the validity of mental health wounds in some Soldiers, thereby undermining treatment prescribed by civilian psychiatrists. In the estimation of this expert, military commanders have undue influence in the treatment of Soldiers with psychological wounds. Another point of general concern for VFA is that Samaritan also has a strong financial incentive to maintain business ties with Fort Drum (as will be discussed in the Recommendations section of this report, this dynamic deserves greater scrutiny). VFA’s work across the country has confirmed that Soldiers often need for their doctors to be stronger advocates for improved treatment by their commanders and comrades. For instance, Soldiers need doctors who are willing to push back against commanders who doubt the legitimacy of combat-related mental health injuries.
A general challenge faced by Soldiers at Fort Drum returning from combat is that self-reporting and/or self-referral are the two most common means for Soldiers with combat-related psychological injuries to come to the attention of mental health professionals on base. That is, when Soldiers return to Fort Drum, they are given the opportunity to complete a health screening questionnaire known as the Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA). (15) The PDHA (DD Form 2796) contains a number of questions, some of which are focused on the mental health needs of troops. Soldiers wishing to conceal their mental health problems can easily do so by providing false information to the questions posed. (16) A number of variables can lead to such an outcome, including the considerable stigma against mental health treatment within the military and pressure within some units to deny mental health problems as a result of combat. In addition, a number of Soldiers interviewed by VFA stated that they had provided inaccurate answers so that they could quickly depart the base for leave. Others stated that they did this so that the paperwork process for leaving the military would not be slowed. Finally, some Soldiers who had been in the military for more than a decade stated that they did not wish to disclose possible postcombat mental health problems for fear that it would reduce their likelihood of being promoted. Adding to the complexity of this situation, some military mental health providers have argued that a number of Soldiers fake mental health injuries to increase the likelihood that they will be deemed unfit for combat and/or for further military service. For all these reasons—and, doubtless many more—the military should shift from a system that relies upon self-referral and should instead transition to a system where everyone receives proactive mental health care treatment. Basic requirements for such proactive care include face-to-face interaction and follow-on treatment, if needed, with the same mental health care provider if possible. A pilot program that could serve as a first step toward a new model of mental health care treatment is found in the Recommendations section of this report.
In meeting with Fort Drum Soldiers, VFA found a number of disconcerting examples of inadequate mental health care at Fort Drum. Some Soldiers reported that the leader of the mental health treatment clinic at Fort Drum asked Soldiers not to discuss their mental health problems with people outside the base. Attempts to keep matters “in house” foster an atmosphere of secrecy and shame that is not conducive to proper treatment for combat-related mental health injuries.
VFA was also told of some Soldiers seeking treatment after normal base business hours for mental health problems at a hospital in Syracuse, more than an hour’s drive from Watertown, rather than at Samaritan Hospital because they feared that Samaritan would side with base leadership, which had, in some cases, cast doubt on the legitimacy of combat-related mental health wounds. In one case, after a suicidal Soldier was taken to a Syracuse hospital, he was treated there for a week, indicating that his mental health concerns were legitimate. Unfortunately, mental health officials at Fort Drum had stated that they did not believe this Soldier’s problems were bona fide.
Another problem in post-combat mental health care faced by Soldiers at Fort Drum—as well as elsewhere in the Army—is the lack of confidentiality of information. If a Soldier seeks mental health treatment, this information is to be released to only a small number of that Soldier’s commanders. Unfortunately, some Soldiers at Fort Drum described a pervasive lack of confidentiality for those seeking post-combat mental health treatment. Such a lack of confidentiality greatly undermines the efficacy of the mental health treatment being received.
Despite these examples, Fort Drum leaders— especially Major General Michael Oates—deserve commendation for setting the tone at Fort Drum that psychological wounds will be treated as legitimate combat wounds and that Soldiers should not hesitate to seek out such treatment. In addition, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated that he will not allow the U.S. military to fail servicemembers in the aftermath of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as occurred after the Vietnam War. (17) Unfortunately, as both the DoD Task Force on Mental Health has reported and VFA found during investigative work at Fort Carson, Colorado, stigma often stands in the way of Soldiers receiving the mental health treatment they need. Signs of such stigma are still found at Fort Drum among some leaders of sub units within the 2nd BCT, such as at the company level. VFA encourages General Oates to continue his aggressive program of outreach to demonstrate the legitimacy of psychological wounds. When necessary, he should make it clear to commanders who violate his overall guidance that such behavior will not be tolerated.
Fort Drum is fortunate that the New York Congressional delegation takes wounded warrior issues seriously. Officials from the offices of both Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton were very receptive to the information unearthed by VFA, building upon the leading work that both senators have already accomplished to ensure that wounded servicemembers and their families receive the assistance that their honorable service merits.
In conclusion, VFA stands ready to continue to work with leaders at Fort Drum, as well as those who have been placed under their command, to ensure that the considerable psychological needs of those who have seen combat on behalf of our nation receive high-quality care. VFA respectfully requests that the Army consider taking steps to give the members of the 2nd BCT more rest. This unit has served its country ably; it is now the country’s turn to show its gratitude by allowing the unit more time at home so that members can “reset” mentally.
VFA RECOMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVING POST-COMBAT PSYCHOLOGICAL CARE
Establish a pilot program for the 2nd BCT of the 10th Mountain Division that would create a more proactive mental health care treatment regimen before, during, and after deployment. This would include comprehensive one-on-one counseling for servicemembers; sophisticated brain scanning technology to assist in differentiating between neurological injuries such as mild traumatic brain injuries and psychological wounds such as PTSD; more attention devoted to the needs of spouses and dependents of combat Soldiers; face-to-face screening for all members of the unit immediately before redeployment, immediately after return to Fort Drum, and face-to-face screening every 30 days thereafter for three years.
Provide considerably more funds to Fort Drum for mental health treatment, given the incredible burden shouldered by units of the 10th Mountain Division.
Establish a special oversight panel to ensure that combat-related mental health treatment at Samaritan Medical Center is not negatively influenced by commanders or funding sources.
The Army should create a publicly available database showing the fatality and casualty rates for units that have served in OEF/OIF. This will help outside organizations have a better understanding of the needs of these units and what might be done to improve their post-deployment mental health treatment. At present, the Army releases this information in a piecemeal fashion.
In addition, the Army should maintain a public database of the number and percentage of Soldiers from a unit that have deployed multiple times. This will provide a better picture of the challenges facing members of units—and the resources required to address their post-combat mental health challenges. Again, the Army currently releases this information piecemeal.
Post-9/11 Deployment History of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 10th Mountain Division
Note: Dates are approximate
Afghanistan: December 1, 2001 to April 5, 2002 (five-month deployment) Dwell-time: Under 13 months
Afghanistan: May 1, 2003 to December 15, 2003 (eight-month deployment) Dwell-time: Six months
Iraq: June 14, 2004 to June 23, 2005 (12-month deployment) Dwell-time: 13.5 months
Iraq: August 9, 2006 to November 8, 2007 (15-month deployment)
52 killed in action
270 wounded in action
Two missing in action
There are approximately 3,500 Soldiers in the 2nd BCT.
In its most recent deployment, the 2nd BCT sustained fatality and casualty rates that appear to be considerably higher than other units that have recently served in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Army does not maintain a database that is available to the public with comparative fatality/casualty figures of units that have deployed. This matter is discussed in the Recommendations section of this report.
Veterans for America tried to determine the validity of these claims but did not receive data from the Fort Drum Public Affairs Office.
Office of the Surgeon, Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I) and Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army Medical Command (MEDCOM), “Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) IV, Operation Iraqi Freedom 05-07, Final Report,” November 19, 2006, accessed at: www.armymedicine.army.mil/news/mhat/ mhat_iv/MHAT_IV_Report_17NOV06.pdf, p. 19.
According to MHAT IV, “acute stress” is synonymous with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, MHAT IV, p. 19. Data from MHAT IV, p. 20.
It should be noted that this rate is for all members of the active Army, including Soldiers who have not seen highintensity combat.
MHAT IV, p. 23.
In a classic case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” it also bears noting that the Walter Reed-based doctors temporarily assigned to Fort Drum left crucial positions at Walter Reed, in some cases creating gaps in coverage and discontinuities in care for severely mentally wounded Soldiers at Walter Reed, the Army’s most sophisticated psychiatric treatment facility.
12 A general concern raised by Soldiers at Fort Drum was turnover of psychiatrists, which creates a lack of continuity of care.
Fort Drum Soldiers with the most complex mental health needs are handled by the in-patient facility at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC.
Norah Machia, “SMC mental health unit expansion is approved,” Watertown Daily Times, June 8, 2007.
If they so choose, Soldiers can refuse to complete the PDHA.
In addition to the PDHA, Soldiers are requested, but not compelled, to complete the Post-Deployment Health Reassessment (PDHRA) (DD Form 2900) between 90 and 180 days after deployment.
This article was originally published in The New York Times, February 13, 2008
WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The four tours in Iraq served by the Second Brigade at Fort Drum here have created an unusual level of stress, especially after the standard Iraq tour was increased to 15 months from 12. Yet according to a new report on the shortcomings of mental health care at the base, a soldier’s wait to be seen for psychological help can take more than a month.
The draft report, “Fort Drum: A Great Burden, Inadequate Assistance,” which was given to The New York Times last week, was done by Veterans for America, a nonprofit advocacy organization for wounded members of the armed forces. It also uncovered several other problems with the mental health services on the post, which is north of Syracuse.
Based on interviews with a dozen soldiers and the mental health providers on the base, the report describes problems with understaffing, a reliance on questionnaires to identify soldiers in need of treatment and a sometimes dismissive view at the company level of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The system is very much overburdened,” said Jason W. Forrester, director of policy for Veterans for America, in a telephone interview last week. “These problems are going to continue as long as we have units, such as the Second Brigade Combat Team, that have seen high-intensity combat, extended deployments and inadequate time between deployments.”
Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, the commander of the 10th Mountain Division, which includes the Second Brigade, acknowledged the shortcomings of the mental health care on the base, and said the problems were being addressed. “We recognize that there is stress on the force and our families from this conflict,” General Oates said. “But until recently we have not fully appreciated the extent of some of the mental stresses and injuries or how best to identify them”
In particular, he said, the providers of psychological services on the base have been expanding their effort to interview “those who are most at risk,” though “the screening process is not where we want it to be.”
Indeed, the report said that the wait for an appointment has eased since three Army psychiatrists were reassigned last month from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, joining three psychiatrists already on the base, to address the needs of 3,500 Second Brigade soldiers recently back from Iraq. But, the report noted, the reassignment was “only a temporary fix” since the psychiatrists from Walter Reed would probably return to Washington in a few weeks.
Fort Drum lacks its own hospital, so any soldier needing inpatient treatment has to be sent to Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, which recently increased the number of beds in its psychiatric unit to 32 from 24.
But the report said that when the psychological facilities at the base have closed for the day, some soldiers have bypassed Samaritan and driven more than an hour to Syracuse for treatment. The Veterans for America report said the soldiers fear that doctors at Samaritan will side with some base leaders, who had, “in some cases, cast doubt on the legitimacy of combat-related mental health wounds.”
“The Department of Defense itself has recognized that with every tour you increase the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Adrienne Willis, spokeswoman for Veterans for America. “Here we have a brigade that has served four tours.”
Nor is the heavy service the only problem at Fort Drum. In the last two weeks, it has been at the center of a controversy over whether the Army instructed the Department of Veterans Affairs last March to stop helping soldiers there with their disability claims. At first, the Army surgeon general, Eric B. Schoomaker, denied that the Army had told Veterans Affairs to do so.
But after National Public Radio reported on a memorandum from the March meeting in Buffalo in which a colonel was quoted as directing Veterans Affairs to discontinue counseling, the surgeon general apologized for his denial and said it was based on a “miscommunication.”
In the report issued by Veterans for America, one soldier, Eli Wright, 26, who was a medic in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and remains on active duty while awaiting a medical discharge, said his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder began after his tour ended and have worsened since then.
"My nerves are basically shot,” Mr. Wright said in a recent interview at the Different Drummer Cafe downtown. “I have flashbacks if I hear loud noises, especially if weapons are being fired. Sometimes just putting on my uniform can bring me right back to my experience in Iraq.”
He said that when he was in Iraq, he treated more civilians than American soldiers, and that two in particular stood out in his mind: an old woman and a child who were shot through a door as soldiers were “going door to door, tearing apart entire neighborhoods” searching for insurgents.
Mr. Wright said he waited weeks at Fort Drum to see a mental health professional, who diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He was prescribed medication and pointed toward group therapy, where, he said, “half the time the group is staring at the floor.” At times, he was taking two pills at once. “I couldn’t stay awake,” he said.
But his chief complaint with the Army is the long wait for treatment. “The average wait time is five to six weeks,” he said. “When a soldier is having a mental breakdown, he has to wait over a month to see a counselor about his problems.”
Mr. Forrester of Veterans for America said that while the top brass at Fort Drum, especially General Oates, have spoken passionately about the need for soldiers to seek psychological treatment, others have not.
“There’s a trickle-down problem with the message, and that is that there’s still a pervasive stigma around mental health treatment in the military, along with a lack of confidentiality,” he said. “For those who still doubt the legitimacy of these wounds, they often are quite abusive of fellow soldiers or people in their units.”
While Fort Drum has two dozen psychologists, social workers and substance-abuse counselors, the low number of psychiatrists is worrisome because psychiatric medication is common, Ms. Willis said. “They’re heavily medicated, and it’s not something a social worker can deal with,” she said. “You really need a psychiatrist to manage that.”