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 was posted to Military.com, October 26, 2009
The Soldier was crossing a bridge when an improvised explosive device planted underneath it detonated.
He was hurt in the explosion, but not badly. It was when he returned to Hampton Roads that the problems really started: He had a crippling fear of bridges and couldn't bring himself to cross them.
Eventually, he turned to hypnosis, said James Scott, the certified hypnotist who treated the Soldier. Scott says he helped the Soldier to subconsciously recognize that the bridges back home were different, that they held no danger.
Scott was part of a group of hypnotists in Virginia Beach this weekend as part of the second meeting of the Virginia Veterans Hypnosis Project.
About three dozen certified hypnotists spent Saturday and Sunday in a conference room at the Best Western, talking about the ways their profession could help veterans and their families. The goal, Scott said, is to conduct studies to figure out what treatments best help veterans deal with the trauma of combat, then to use those studies to gain recognition for hypnosis as a viable treatment option.
When most people think of hypnosis, they think of quitting smoking or losing weight, said Andy Leon, a founder of the project.
The same techniques that help people stop overeating and stop lighting up, he said, can also help the subconscious detach itself from feelings about events that took place in combat and are now preventing a veteran from leading a full life.
"We have the ability to help people release emotional energy or hidden feelings that can otherwise lead to problems in their relationships, job performance or overall quality of life," Scott said. "These therapies, they're not voodoo. These are all things that work."
This documentary was released in six parts, between February and August 2009, by Robert Greenwald. As the President considers his options, following a blatantly fraudulent Presidential election and an ever increasing US/NATO/Afghan death toll, the same group of chicken hawks (the Project for a New American Century and their Coterie of neo-conservative war-mongering fools and high ranking brass who were responsible for the Iraq war are now calling for a massive increase in US troops beyond the 17,000 mentioned in the film, the questions and issues raised in this film are brought into sharp focus.
Part One: Afghanistan + More Troops = Catastrophe
President Obama has committed 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. This decision raises serious questions about troops, costs, overall mission, and exit strategy. Historically, it has been Congress' duty to ask questions in the form of oversight hearings that challenge policymakers, examine military spending, and educate the public. After witnessing the absence of oversight regarding the Iraq war, we must insist Congress hold hearings on Afghanistan.
Part Two: Pakistan: "The Most Dangerous Country"
The war in Afghanistan and its potentially catastrophic impact on Pakistan are complex and dangerous issues, which further make the case why our country needs a national debate on this now starting with congressional oversight hearings.
Part Three: "Cost of War"
As we pay our tax bills, it seems an appropriate time to urge everyone to Rethink Afghanistan, a war that currently costs over $2 billion a month but hasn't made us any safer. Everyone has a friend or relative who just lost a job. Do we really want to spend over $1 trillion on another war? Everyone knows someone who has lost their home. Do we really want spend our tax dollars on a war that could last a decade or more? The Obama administration has taken some smart steps to counter this economic crisis with its budget request. Do we really want to see that effort wasted by expanding military demands?
Part Four: "Civilian Casualties"
When foreign policy is well-reasoned, we see attention given to humanitarian issues like housing, jobs, health care and education. When that policy consists of applying a military solution to a political problem, however, we see death, destruction, and suffering. Director Robert Greenwald witnessed the latter during his recent trip to Afghanistan--the devastating consequences of U.S. airstrikes on thousands of innocent civilians.
The footage you are about to see is poignant, heart-wrenching, and often a direct result of U.S. foreign policy.
We must help the refugees whose lives have been shattered by U.S. foreign policy and military attacks. Support the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an organization dedicated to helping women and children, human rights issues, and social justice. Then, become a Peacemaker. Receive up-to-the-minute information through our new mobile alert system whenever there are Afghan civilian casualties from this war, and take immediate action by calling Congress.
Part Five: "Women of Afghanistan"
Eight years have passed since Laura Bush declared that "because of our recent military gains, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes" in Afghanistan. For eight years, that claim has been a lie.
The truth is that American military escalation will not liberate the women of Afghanistan. Instead, the hardships of war take a disproportionate toll on women and their families. There are 1,000 displaced families in a Kabul refugee camp, and they're suffering for lack of food and blankets. A few weeks ago, you generously gave $6,000 to help and $9,000 more is needed to take care of all 1,000 families. Thats a donation of $15 per family to provide the relief necessary for their survival.
Here's what your money will buy:
Part Six: "How much security did $1 trillion buy?"
The war in Afghanistan is increasing the likelihood that American civilians will be killed in a future terrorist attack.
Part 6 of Rethink Afghanistan, Security, brings you three former high-ranking CIA agents to explain why.
There is no "victory" to be won in Afghanistan. It is the most important video about U.S. Security today.
This article, by Kevin Graman, was publiahed in the Spokesman-Review, August 9, 2009
The number of Spokane-area veterans who killed themselves in a one-year period is far greater than the Spokane Veteran Affairs Medical Center knew at the time, a VA investigation has found.
The VA’s Office of Medical Investigations discovered that from July 2007 through the first week of July 2008, at least 22 veterans in the Spokane VA service area killed themselves, and 15 of them had contact with the medical center.
Spokane VA had previously reported nine suicides and 34 attempted suicides in that time period. All of them had some contact with the medical center.
“The methods and sources routinely being utilized by the medical center to identify veterans who have committed suicide may be inadequate,” a report by the VA medical inspectors said.
The suicides came amid heightened concern for the mental health of soldiers and veterans nationally. In response, VA facilities have strengthened protocols for identifying patients at risk of suicide.
The inspectors’ report was released late last week by the Veterans Health Administration to Spokane resident Steve Senescall, after a year spent trying to find out more about the death of his son, Lucas Senescall. The young man’s body was found hanging in his Spokane home a few hours after he sought psychiatric help at the Spokane VA.
Although the report was completed on Feb. 4, Senescall did not receive it until late Thursday, hours after The Spokesman-Review called VA headquarters and the office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray with inquiries about the father’s efforts to obtain the information.
On July 7, 2008, Steve Senescall accompanied his son – who had a history of mental illness, including a previous suicide attempt – to the medical center’s psychiatric ward, where Lucas was seen by Dr. William L. Brown.
Rather than admit Lucas, Senescall said, the psychiatrist had the veteran make an appointment for an office visit in two weeks.
“I want to know why, when he was rocking back and forth in his chair with his hands over his mouth to keep from crying, he sent him home,” Senescall said.
Senescall’s suicide was the 15th in a little more than 12 months by a veteran who had at least some contact with the Spokane medical center.
The discrepancy between the nine deaths reported earlier by the Spokane VA and the 22 noted in the medical investigators’ report came as a result of the medical center comparing death records from the Spokane County medical examiner with records from all three branches of the VA – the Veterans Health Administration, the Veteran Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery System.
Medical center officials had gathered the information to make it available to inspectors when they arrived for a two-day visit on July 23, 2008. “Up until this time we did not have a systematic way of determining all the veteran suicides that occurred in our catchment area,” said Dr. Gregory Winter, head of behavioral health at Spokane VA.
The investigation found that other veterans who had not had contact with the medical center had killed themselves. The total number of veteran suicides likely would be much higher had the investigation checked all death records in the region served by the medical center, which provides care for 215,000 veterans from Wenatchee to Kalispell, Mont.
The heavily redacted report cited numerous exemptions under the federal Freedom of Information Act protecting the privacy of victims and their VA health care providers. It also cited an extraordinary exemption protecting the VA from disclosure of medical quality assurance review records.
The report was so redacted that it is difficult in most cases to determine the extent of an individual veteran’s contact with Spokane VA, much less what action was taken to protect the veteran from himself. Medical center Director Sharon Helman said Friday some of them may have been enrolled as VA patients but failed to show up for health care.
The report identifies each veteran only by a number. Nevertheless, details provided in several cases closely match the circumstances of veterans who have previously been identified by The Spokesman-Review.
References to Veteran 1 match what is known about Senescall. The report concludes that VA staff should have attempted to interview him alone and should have offered him hospitalization.
“The medical center should peer review the care provided to Veteran 1 and appropriate actions should be taken based on the findings,” the report said.
Helman declined to say whether any disciplinary action has been taken as a result of any of the suicides.
“Reviews were done and appropriate actions were taken,” Helman said.
The description of Veteran 2 matches the case of Richard Kinsey Young, a 35-year-old Navy veteran who killed himself in April 2008 after a 16-month struggle with back pain and depression.
“This … veteran did not appear to have a well-coordinated pain management plan to assist … with intractable pain until a few days before death,” the report states.
The report appears to conclude that several of the veterans who killed themselves were being treated for pain, which may have contributed to their suicides.
Statistics gathered at the Spokane VA in 2006 showed that nearly 70 percent of infantry soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan sought treatment for musculoskeletal injuries related to carrying too much gear.
The most common complaint was lower back pain, reported by 54 percent of the soldiers, a previous Spokesman-Review investigation found. Two of the veterans who killed themselves were Iraq or Afghanistan veterans, including Spc. Timothy Juneman, a 25-year-old National Guardsman and former Stryker Brigade soldier who was injured in a roadside explosion in Iraq.
Juneman hanged himself at his home in Pullman, where he was taking classes at Washington State University after being released from inpatient suicide watch at the Spokane VA in January 2008. He apparently received no follow-up care by VA staff. Brown was the psychiatrist who released Juneman. In records obtained by Juneman before his death, Brown wrote that Juneman was apparently despondent over imminent redeployment to Iraq with the Guard, his family has said. Because of privacy laws, the VA was unable to notify the Department of Defense about the medical condition of “active veterans” such as Guard and Reserve members.
Among the recommendations of the medical inspectors was that the VA and Department of Defense “should determine under what circumstances patient safety should take priority over patient privacy, e.g., reservists being treated by the VA who is in no physical/mental condition to deploy.”
The inspectors made numerous other recommendations on how the medical center could better identify and care for veterans at risk of suicide, most of which already had been implemented before the report’s release, Helman said.
“Every one of the recommendations was supportable and something we needed to implement,” Helman said. “We have aggressively taken action to improve care to veterans.”
This article, by Maya Schenwar, was posted toTruthOut, July 16, 2009.
Neglect, mistreatment and abuse are the norm for active-duty soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown post-traumatic stress disorder into stark public light. As of the end of March, 346,393 US veterans were being treated for PTSD; 115,000 of those served in Iraq or Afghanistan. That number continues to grow rapidly.
However, PTSD symptoms don't always wait to emerge until soldiers return home. For active-duty soldiers like Airman Steven Flowers, stationed in Aviano, Italy, it can take years to receive even minimal care. And once treatment begins, the soldiers are often punished for revealing their problems.
Diagnosed with PTSD in 2007, Flowers receives only a 15-minute monthly session with a military psychiatrist - mostly to prescribe medications - and a brief monthly or bimonthly session with a psychologist. Since his diagnosis, Flowers has endured "constant harassment" within his unit, and incurs harsh punishment from his commanders for even the "slightest perceived inadequacies."
"Though I have had suicidal ideations, I am not considered a risk," Flowers told Truthout.
Flowers's case is not unique. Active-duty PTSD sufferers are subject to neglect and ridicule, according to Tim Huber, director of the Military Counseling Network.
"PTSD is a great scapegoat for the military to trot out when veterans face discrimination or have a difficult time securing jobs and making a new life in the civilian world, but while those troops are on active duty, they're supposed to simply 'soldier on' and get over it," Huber told Truthout.
This mentality leads many soldiers to conceal their symptoms for years. It also means that military leaders are resistant to signs of PTSD in the ranks. In fact, Huber considers Flowers's case lucky.
"I am actually impressed Flowers was able to receive a PTSD diagnosis," Huber said. "We work with many service members who can't even get that much recognition, and are instead simply criticized for being soft, and/or trying to get out."
The trend toward disregarding or silencing PTSD sufferers even extends to military psychiatrists, according to Chris Capps-Schubert, the Europe coordinator for Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is following Flowers's situation closely.
"In the summary of Flowers's case, his military psychologist said it's a difficult position for him as a doctor, because he has conflicting interests in his role as a medical provider and his role as a soldier," Capps-Schubert told Truthout.
Flowers was experiencing PTSD symptoms well before 2007, but says he was afraid of the consequences of seeking help.
Many soldiers suffer for long periods before coming forward with their symptoms; others speak out about their condition but are denied treatment.
Army Sgt. Selena Coppa was recently diagnosed with military sexual trauma, a form of PTSD resulting from sexual harassment, assault or rape, years after her symptoms began.
"I think that the lack of initial treatment has severely impacted my life," Coppa, who served in Iraq and is now stationed in Germany, told Truthout. "I was told by my therapist that my PTSD had gone from simple to complex as a result of the military environment and lack of real treatment. Military practitioners tend to be extremely unwilling to diagnose PTSD in active-duty soldiers, and thus make it more difficult for individuals to have access to treatment and care." Retention at All Costs Both Flowers and Coppa protested the military's neglect of their problems, but found little recourse for their grievances.
"I complained about what I felt was inadequate treatment, but was told there was simply no better treatment to offer me outside of the States, and they would not consider transferring me to the better treatment until I had already 'run the full course' with the less-effective treatment," Coppa said.
The military's reluctance to diagnose or treat PTSD is linked to its primary goal: retaining soldiers on the ground. Even if a soldier is only marginally able to perform, military authorities may make a strategic decision to delay diagnosis and treatment, which could lead to a discharge.
"For Flowers to be discharge-worthy, the military must feel it is better off without him," Huber said. "But there's a wrinkle. The military has to cultivate a culture of commitment. If it were easy to skip the enlistment contract and get out early, retention would plummet and America's ability to maintain the military status quo would vanish. That's why so many squeaky wheels don't get greased, and eventually crack and crumble.... I guess one could say brute retention is more important than mission readiness."
Soldiers diagnosed with psychological disorders may be reassigned to alternate duties, in place of receiving adequate treatment or a discharge. Flowers, for example, is now relegated to "meter maid" duty. He walks the Air Force base looking for parking violations, though he suffers from serious knee and back problems.
By the end of his daily nine-hour shift, he is in excruciating pain.
Coppa, who is now stationed in Germany, notes that her treatment - or lack thereof - was determined almost solely based on the "wishes of the command," not on her medical needs. Even after her diagnosis was recognized, she repeatedly met with resistance and indifference.
She also discovered that the military has startlingly few resources to deal with military sexual trauma.
"There are no domestic violence groups here in Germany, and no military sexual trauma groups," Coppa said. "They are ill-equipped to treat this form of PTSD in anything but a solo setting, which is not as helpful. Though they acknowledged I would benefit medically from a transfer to the States, one was refused."
Coppa's experience is widespread: support groups and alternative treatments are very rare. Typically, PTSD-diagnosed soldiers are prescribed medication at the outset, often with little explanation or accompanying talk therapy.
Drugs are seen as the quickest, most efficient route to retaining a soldier on duty, regardless of the consequences, according to Huber.
"The main strategy is to prescribe the problems away with pills, and as long as someone can remain upright under their own power and perform the base elements of their MOS [military occupation specialty], the military is adequately 'treating' the problem," Huber said. "If someone refuses to medicate, for fear of what they might do with live ammunition under the influence of three, four, five or more mind-altering drugs, they are simply written off as refusing the military's 'help' and not wanting to get better."
Recently, after a long fight, Steven Flowers was able to form a support group for PTSD sufferers in his unit. The group was created against the wishes of the military mental health staff, and Flowers's psychiatrist initially refused to consider the idea. Such groups are almost unheard of for soldiers on active duty.
For many service members with PTSD, the best they can hope for is the strength and luck to hold out until they return home.
"The help can be a little better after people get out and start seeing civilian psychologists, who care more about the individual then retaining a soldier who fills a slot in a unit," Capps-Schubert said.
This article, by Jia-Rui Chong, was published in the Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2009.
About 37% of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from the last time the prevalence was calculated, according to a new study published today analyzing national Department of Veterans Affairs data.
The study, which examined the records of about 289,000 veterans who sought care at the VA between 2002 and 2008, also found higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“What’s really striking is the dramatic acceleration in mental health diagnoses, particularly PTSD, after the beginning of the conflict in Iraq,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Karen Seal, a staff physician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and an assistant professor at UC San Francisco.
The researchers said they could not pinpoint the exact causes of the increase, but suggested: “Waning public support and lower morale among troops may predispose returning veterans to mental health problems, as occurred during the Vietnam era.”
They also suggested that more and longer deployments could have also contributed to the increase in diagnoses.
The previous study of national VA data, which examined Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking care between 2001 and 2005, found that 25% of those veterans received mental health diagnoses. About 13% were diagnosed with the anxiety disorder PTSD and 5% with depression.
The new study by Seal and her colleagues, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that 22% of the veterans in the study had PTSD and 17% had depression.
When the researchers compared veterans of Afghanistan from early in the war to veterans of Iraq four years later, they found the rates of PTSD diagnosis more than tripled.
The newest study correlates closely to a 2008 report by the Rand Corp., based on a much smaller sample of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. In that study, about 14% met the criteria for PTSD and 14% for depression.
In related news:
The National Institute of Mental Health announced it has commissioned a $50-million study to identify risk and protective factors for suicide among soldiers, calling it “the largest study of suicide and mental health among military personnel ever undertaken.”
The institute said in a statement that the study was a direct response to the Army’s request to use the most promising scientific approaches to address the rising suicide rate. Though the suicide rate in the Army had been historically lower in the military than among civilians, that pattern reversed in 2008, when the suicide rate in the Army became about 20 suicides in every 100,000 soldiers.
The research teams will be based at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, University of Michigan, Harvard University and Columbia University.
This article, by William Fisher, was published by IPS, February 17, 2009
NEW YORK, Feb 16 (IPS) - With growing public support for a public investigation of crimes that may have been committed by the administration of former president George W. Bush in waging its "global war on terror", policy makers and legal experts are deeply divided on how to proceed - and President Barack Obama seems ambivalent about whether to proceed at all.
The president has said his view is that "nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."
Before his nomination to be Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder appeared to take a stronger view.
He said, "Our government authorised the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution... We owe the American people a reckoning."
But at his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Holder tempered his responses to adhere more closely to Obama's position.
The president initially refrained from commenting on a proposal from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, for a "truth commission" to investigate abuses of detainees, politically inspired moves at the Justice Department, and a whole range of decisions made during the Bush administration. At the time, Obama said he had not seen the Leahy proposal, although he has not explicitly ruled it out.
Such a "truth commission" is one of several ideas being offered by those who see a comprehensive look-back as essential to cleansing the U.S. justice system and restoring the U.S.'s reputation in the world.
Leahy said the primary goal of the commission would be to learn the truth rather than prosecute former officials, but said the inquiry should reach far beyond misdeeds at the Justice Department under Bush to include matters of Iraq prewar intelligence and the Defence Department.
The panel he envisions would be modeled after one that investigated the apartheid regime in South Africa. It would have subpoena power but would not bring criminal charges, he said.
Among the matters Leahy wants investigated by such a commission are: the firings of U.S. attorneys, treatment and torture of terror suspect detainees, and the authorisation of warrantless wiretapping. He said that witnesses before such a commission might have to be granted limited immunity from prosecution to obtain their testimony.
Other Democrats have called for criminal investigations of those who authorised certain controversial tactics in the war on terror. Republicans have countered that such decisions made in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks should not be second-guessed.
An arguably stronger measure has been proposed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, and nine other lawmakers. The measure would set up a National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties, with subpoena power and a reported budget of around 3.0 million dollars.
It would investigate issues ranging from detainee treatment to waterboarding and extraordinary rendition. The panel's members would come from outside the government and be appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both parties.
This body would be much like the 9/11 Commission, set up after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, to examine failures within government anti-terror efforts. The commission's investigation did not lead to any prosecutions.
Human rights advocacy groups and many legal experts have been more forceful in their proposals.
For example, Amnesty International is urging its supporters to press lawmakers to investigate the U.S. government's abuses in the war on terror and hold accountable those responsible. The organisation is calling on Obama and Congress to create an independent and impartial commission to examine the use of torture, indefinite detention, secret renditions and other illegal U.S. counterterrorism policies.
But the organisation does not necessarily see a conflict between a 9/11-type body and a "truth and reconciliation" commission. In answer to a question from IPS, Amnesty International's Tom Parker said, "I don't think the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Both could go forward at the same time. The immunities that may have to be granted by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would not be absolute."
Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, does not favour the "truth and reconciliation" approach.
She told IPS, "As President Obama said, 'No one is above the law.' His attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute Bush administration officials and lawyers who set the policy that led to the commission of war crimes. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are used for nascent democracies in transition. By giving immunity to those who testify before them, it would ensure that those responsible for torture, abuse and illegal spying will never be brought to justice."
A similar view was expressed by Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University. He told IPS, "The immunities that might be granted in connection with a congressional or commission investigation of the Bush administration could well compromise the prospects for criminal prosecution, as our experience with the Iran-Contra affair demonstrates. There is likewise reason to fear that justice cannot be completely served without recourse to prosecution."
"On the other hand," he said, "I believe our paramount need as a country is for a full and fair airing of the historical record; democracies depend, I think, on an unblinking understanding of their past."
"One would hope that immunity might be granted as narrowly as possible and that efforts would be undertaken to allow the Justice Department to preserve its investigative integrity based on independently developed evidence. Should push come to shove, however, I think history is more important than prosecution," he added.
Brian J. Foley, visiting associate professor at Boston University law school, takes a harder line. He told IPS, "Until we have Truth and Reconciliation Commissions rather than prosecutions for drug offenders and others accused of non-violent crimes whom we promiscuously throw into our overcrowded prisons, we should not bestow 'justice lite' on our political leaders. It appears that laws designed with government actors in mind were broken. There should be prosecutions."
And Georgetown University's David Cole, one of the country's preeminent constitutional lawyers, believes the Obama administration or Congress "should at a minimum appoint an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the United States' adoption of coercive interrogation policies."
It should have "a charge to assess responsibility, not just to look forward", he said.
This divergence of viewpoints - from doing nothing to appointing a special prosecutor - is putting President Obama in an uncomfortable position. The most recent Gallup Poll shows that a sizable majority of citizens favours an investigation into Bush-era misconduct.
But Obama appears reluctant to take any action that might further divide the country. Moreover, he may be loath to antagonise Republicans, whose support he may need on many other issues in the future.
The Democratically-controlled Congress does not need the president in order to act - it can hold extensive hearings, grant itself subpoena power and in effect take whatever action it desires short of legislation, which would require the president's signature. But Congressional Democrats may well be reluctant to overtly defy the wishes of the president, who is the leader of their party.
So the form of the Bush-era retrospective - if there is to be one - is yet very much a work in progress that will continue to put pressure on the young Obama administration.
This article, the second part of Salon's series Coming Home by Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna, was published February 10, 2009
Feb. 10, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- It was unseasonably warm for November in Colorado as Heidi Lieberman approached the door of the Soldiers' Memorial Chapel at Fort Carson. She walked past a few of the large evergreens that dot the chapel grounds and then entered the blockish, modern beige and brown chapel topped with a sharp, rocketlike steeple.
Inside, the chapel was hushed. Camouflage-clad, crew-cut young men packed the pews. Up in front, an empty Army helmet hung on the butt of an upright M16. A pair of brown combat boots sat below, as if they had been tucked under a bunk. A soldier handed Heidi a program for a memorial service. On the front was the image of a soldier, kneeling in prayer below an American flag and illuminated by a beacon of light from above. The inscription just below the kneeling soldier read, "Lord, grant me the strength ..."
It had been five days since Heidi's son Adam, 21, a soldier at Fort Carson, swallowed handfuls of prescription sleeping pills and psychotropic drugs in the barracks, trying to die. With a can of black paint, Adam brushed a suicide note on the wall of his room. The Army, Adam wrote, "took my life."
Adam had lived. Pfc. Timothy Ryan Alderman wasn't so lucky. Alderman had been found dead of a similar drug overdose in his room in the barracks at Fort Carson in the early-morning hours of Oct. 20, 10 days before Adam Lieberman made his suicide attempt.
Heidi, who was at Fort Carson to deal with the aftermath of her own son's suicide attempt, had decided to attend Alderman's funeral although neither she nor her son had known him. She sank into a pew and tried to reconcile two warring thoughts.
"On the one hand I was thinking, How dare the Army?" she told me later. "It is almost a slap in the face for the Army to present this lovely memorial service. It just seemed so hypocritical. Here was a kid who was screaming for help. He killed himself and they are making nice-nice?"
"On the other hand," she recalled thinking as she scanned the pews for family of the dead soldier, "I was thinking, God, this could have been me."
Both men were 21. Both served long combat tours in Iraq. Both overdosed on drugs. Both had sought help from the Army, and the Army had failed them. Sadly, however, their stories are far from unique.
Late last month, the Army announced data showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Another 15 deaths are still under investigation as potential suicides. And suicide is only one manifestation of the mental health ills coming home with U.S. troops. Four years after Salon first exposed problems with healthcare at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ultimately became a national scandal, the situation, at least at some Army posts, has only deteriorated. For the "Coming Home" series, in which today's two entries are the second installment, Salon put together a sample of 25 cases of suicide, prescription drug overdoses or murder involving Fort Carson soldiers since 2004. A close study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of avoidable deaths, meaning that a suicide or murder might well have been prevented had the Army better handled the predictable and well-known symptoms of combat stress. (Read the introduction to the "Coming Home" series here.) As Alderman's death shows, part of the problem is an apparent tendency of Army doctors to substitute large doses of prescription medication for adequate mental healthcare.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Timothy Ryan Alderman grew up in Mulberry, a central Florida town of just 3,200 people, a speck on the map 30 miles inland from Tampa. Though Florida is often thought of as a state full of transplants, Alderman, who went by his middle name, Ryan, had roots in Mulberry. His father had also been raised there, and some of Ryan’s teachers had been his father’s schoolmates. Growing up, Ryan was an avid outdoorsman, hunting rabbit and squirrel and catching bass and bluegill. He was also a passionate skateboarder and surfer. Skateboarding became snowboarding when Ryan joined the Army just after his 18th birthday in 2005 and was stationed at Fort Carson.
Ryan served over a year in Iraq as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, part of the 2nd Infantry Division. His tour, including service in Ramadi, site of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq, began in October 2006. Soldiers at Fort Carson say he served on 250 missions and had 16 confirmed kills, though it is difficult to independently verify those figures.
It was by all accounts an active and bloody combat tour. His medical records show that when he was in Iraq he did not think he would suffer combat stress afterward, because he "mostly had fun killing people and getting paid for it." If that sounds monstrous, it is actually not unusual for war veterans to describe combat as simultaneously horrifying and thrilling.
Ryan did receive at least three battalion commander "coins for excellence." Some units hand out the engraved, bronze-colored coins as on-the-spot awards for good performance or valor. Correspondence from Ryan's battalion to his family shows that Ryan received one, for example, for extracting another wounded soldier under fire during an ambush.
While Ryan's medical records show he reported no serious mental problems before Iraq, things unwound upon his return in late 2007 and got worse as time passed. In June 2008 Ryan showed up at Fort Carson's hospital and filled out a "behavioral health questionnaire." He reported being "extremely bothered" by disturbing memories, nightmares, panic attacks, trying not to think about the war, emotional numbness, irritation, angry outbursts and jumpiness, among other symptoms.
He reported on the form that his problems began in February 2008, soon after his return from Iraq. On a scale of 1 to 10, Ryan ranked the severity of his situation as an 8. When the form asked, "What are you seeking from this service?" Ryan filled in, simply, "help."
Soldiers face considerable stigma for seeking mental healthcare in some Army units. Old habits die hard, according to the Fort Carson commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, a man with a reputation for working to fix these problems at his post. "We are trying to say that it is a sign of strength and not weakness to come forward and get help."
"What I tell the [officers and non-coms in combat units] is, 'You are not medical professionals. You are not the people that can treat and diagnose this.' So, [their job] is to be caring and compassionate for our soldiers and make sure they get the medical care they need."
"I do think we are making some progress," said Graham, describing the erasure of the stigma for seeking mental healthcare as a top priority. "It is certainly not fast enough for any of us ... It takes time and it takes consistency from the entire Army."
"Any death is regrettable," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's top psychiatrist, in an interview. "And certainly suicide -- which is something I've been looking into very closely -- is extremely tragic for all concerned and we always go back and say, 'How could this have been prevented? What could we have done better?'" Ritchie reels off a laundry list of initiatives for improving Army mental healthcare, like the establishment of a 24-7 hotline for soldiers to help arrange counseling and a new policy, started in the spring of 2008, to ensure that seeking mental healthcare won't mess up a soldier's security clearance. The Army's most recent study of mental health issues in Iraq and Afghanistan showed improvements on decreasing stigma. "The trend is the direction we'd like it to go in," said Ritchie.
At least one of Alderman's superiors apparently didn't get the message. There is a saying that the most powerful man in the Army is a sergeant. That's because when a low-ranking soldier needs just about anything, he has to go to his first sergeant. A former roommate of Alderman's who fought beside him in Iraq took Alderman to his first sergeant to get him mental healthcare. "I escorted Ryan to the first sergeant's office," Alderman's buddy told Salon. According to the friend, the first sergeant "blew [Alderman] off" and said, "Everybody sees what you saw" in Iraq. At one point, alleged the friend, another sergeant told Alderman, "I wish you would just go ahead and kill yourself. It would save us a lot of paperwork."
"The Army treated Ryan as if he was the problem," said the friend, "not that he had a problem."
Alderman's medical records show that in June 2008 he had "homicidal ideation" toward his first sergeant. By August, he was "feeling suicidal." Alderman was hospitalized in June, in August and then finally in October because of his symptoms. Records show doctors saw crosshatch lacerations on his arms. The cuts, Alderman would later reveal, were from self-mutilation.
The records show doctors, however, "ruled out" PTSD as the cause of Alderman's problems, and did so without any recorded explanation. As in Adam Lieberman's case, doctors determined that Alderman's problems were his own, and were not related to his Army service. At various times, doctors instead blamed anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, alcohol abuse, depression "NOS" (not otherwise specified) and anxiety "NOS" -- anything but the war.
Records show that during the summer of 2008, Alderman admitted to doctors that he sought out medication to "numb my feelings." The Army put Alderman in the same substance abuse program as Adam Lieberman, the one Lieberman would later call a "joke."
Alderman's father, Tim, also noticed the change in his son after Iraq, just as Heidi Lieberman noticed a change in Adam. Tim thought Ryan might suffer from PTSD.
Ironically, the Army had educated Tim on PTSD. While his son was in Iraq, the Army had sent Tim "Down Range: To Iraq and Back," by Bridget C. Cantrell and Chuck Dean, a book about PTSD. Tim thought his son's symptoms upon his return made him a prime candidate. He didn't understand why the Army couldn't see the same thing. "I read the book and I knew what to look for," Tim said in a telephone call from his home in Florida. "But he wasn't in my house, he was in their house," he said, referring to the Army.
Tim visited his son in the first week of October during Ryan's last hospitalization. Tim said the visit left him worried that the Army cared little for damaged soldiers. They got pills while being processed out of the military, but not much more. "It looked like a slaughterhouse operation to me," he told me. "Get 'em in. Get 'em out. Get 'em to Iraq."
Ryan's medical records from that period describe his father as "genuine and supportive and tearful at times." Tim also expressed some alarm: His son seemed dangerously stoned on his meds. "Dad noted that Ryan seemed 'out of it' and 'over-medicated,'" according to the records.
Just prior to his death, Ryan Alderman planned to do something about his shoddy treatment at the hands of the Army. He joined a small group of soldiers who wrote and signed sworn statements explaining their predicaments. The plan was to seek some sort of legal help. Salon obtained Alderman's statement from the family of another Fort Carson soldier.
He describes "traumatic events" in Iraq, including the death of friends from roadside bombs and a friendly-fire incident in which U.S. Marines fired on his post. "Upon returning from Iraq, seeking help was discouraged," Alderman wrote in his sworn statement. "So I self medicated and started cutting myself to relief (sic) the pain." (Self-mutilation is a relatively common phenomenon among people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It literally cuts through the emotional numbness, allowing the PTSD sufferer to feel something.)
"I still have nightmares about the war and Staff Sgt. Hager," Alderman wrote in his sworn statement, referring to the bloody death of Staff Sgt. Joshua Hager by roadside bomb on Feb. 23, 2007, in Ramadi. Friends say Alderman pulled Hager's dismembered corpse from the wreckage of a vehicle. "I am seeking help but I feel like I'm not being treated right. I mean mental help. I struggle every day with it."
Alderman dated the sworn statement Oct. 13, 2008. He died seven days later.
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While the Army claims Alderman committed suicide, evidence suggests he might just as well have accidentally overdosed on a massive concoction of prescription drugs the Army gave him, plus a couple of his own.
Possible overmedication is a theme running throughout Alderman's hospitalization and care at the hands of the Army. On Oct. 6, one caregiver wrote in his records that Alderman "appears to be heavily medicated," could not complete sentences and was dozing off. A note on Oct. 8 says Alderman was "very dependent on his medications." On Oct. 11, one caregiver on the evening shift described him as being in a "stupor."
By mid-October, the records describe Alderman as "very much drug seeking." Doctors replaced his Valium and Percocet with alternatives. Alderman responded by demanding to be released from the hospital.
On discharge, records show, doctors had Alderman on 0.5 mg of Klonopin for anxiety three times a day; 800 mg of Neurotin, an anti-seizure medication, three times a day; 100 mg of Ultram, a narcotic-like pain reliever, three times a day; 20 mg of Geodon for bipolar disorder at noon and then another 80 mg at night; 0.1 mg of Clonodine, a blood pressure medication also used for withdrawal symptoms, three times a day; 60 mg of Remeron, for depression, once a day; and 10 mg of Prozac twice a day.
Salon contacted an Army psychiatrist who requested anonymity and read him that list of drugs and the dosage amounts. "Oh God," he said. "That's shitty. That breaks all the rules. He was overmedicated. That's bad medicine."
An Army psychologist at Fort Carson examined Alderman on the day of his discharge from the hospital. She described him as "overly sedated and slurring his words." (The Army psychiatrist Salon called said, "Of course he was.") Despite his heavy prescription load, Alderman still wanted pain pills. The Fort Carson psychologist described Alderman as depressed, anxious and sad, but not contemplating suicide or murder. The psychologist sent Alderman on his way to the barracks. It is the last entry. Alderman was found dead five days later.
Col. Kelly A. Wolgast, the commander of Evans U.S. Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson, declined comment on any specific cases, citing privacy law. "I feel for families who have lost a soldier, no matter how it happened," she said in an interview at her office. "We grieve with them. We will completely pledge to those families that we are doing everything that we possibly can to see that never happens to another soldier. Their sacrifice, we believe, is not in vain."
Alderman's autopsy report blames "multiple drug intoxication" for his death. The cause: suicide. In addition to his meds, Alderman took some Xanax and morphine, adding to the toxic combination, but there is little evidence he meant to die. Tim Alderman thinks his son's body succumbed to the onslaught of drugs, more Heath Ledger than Kurt Cobain. In this case, the cocktail included some drugs supplied by the Army, some abused by Ryan. "His body just shut down," claimed Tim. "It was overloaded."
Ryan's former roommate and battle buddy blames the Army for Ryan's death. "I know he didn't commit suicide," he told me. "I don't think he should have been released from the hospital. I know for a fact the Army killed my friend," he added. "I want something done. The Army is killing people left and right and nobody cares."
The Army ruled Ryan's death a suicide, in part, because he had pinned a letter to his wall addressed to his mother who died of an illness years earlier. Tim shared the note with Salon, along with hundreds of pages of medical records.
The affectionate letter doesn't read much like a suicide note. Ryan pledges that, "You will always be in my heart and soul." Tim said Ryan told him about that letter some time ago. Ryan's medical records show he was writing similar letters to sort out his feelings.
Ryan's intentions in the early hours of Oct. 20, however, seem beside the point. A clear-eyed assessment of his war-related problems might have saved him.
The stakes are always high whenever a parent loses a child. They were especially high for Ryan's father, Tim. Tim's wife died in 2004 from illness. His eldest son, Ryan's older brother, died in 2006 in a car crash. Now Ryan, his last surviving child, is gone. "It was the end of [the] family tree," Tim said about his younger son's death. "Everything I started is gone."
This report was posted by Paul Reickoff on, to IAVA.org February 12
Earlier this week, I told you about an amazing group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that were coming to Capitol Hill for a historic trip to Congress, to advocate on behalf of their fellow vets. Today, I want to tell you just one of their extraordinary stories. Rey Leal served as a Marine in Fallujah during some of the heaviest fighting, earning a Bronze Star with valor as a Private First Class, an almost unheard of accomplishment for a soldier of his rank. But when he returned to southern Texas, he needed help coming home from war. Instead of having resources at his fingertips, his closest VA hospital was over five hours away. Rey’s a tough Marine, and a boxer, but he shouldn’t have to fight to get care at a veterans’ hospital. And at his nearest outpatient clinic, there was just one psychologist, taking appointments only two days a week.
The psychologist only works two days because that Texas clinic, like many VA clinics and hospitals, has to stretch its’ funding to make sure the money lasts the whole year. They don’t know how much funding they’ll have next year because the VA budget is routinely passed late. In fact, 19 of the past 22 years, the budget has not been passed on time. As a result, the VA is forced to ration care for the almost 6 million veterans that depend on its services.
For the millions of veterans like Rey, we must fix this broken VA funding system.
Imagine trying to balance your family’s budget without knowing what your next paycheck will be. That’s what we’re asking of the largest health care provider in the nation to do. And it doesn’t work.
The good news is that there is a solution. “Advance appropriations,” approving the VA health care budget one year in advance, would supply timely and predictable funding, and it’s an effective way to ensure the highest quality care that our veterans deserve. It doesn’t make for a sexy news story. But it is a critical, comprehensive way to tackle many of the challenges facing vets ranging from PTSD, to homelessness to military sexual trauma. And it wouldn’t cost a dime. That is not something you hear much down in Washington lately.
While the lack of cost is highly unusual, advance appropriations is not a new concept for how the federal government does business. Low-income housing and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting already depend on the advance appropriations process to plan their programming. If this policy is good enough for Big Bird, then it should be good enough for vets like Rey.
That has been our message all week in Washington. Now this week, in the face of a surge of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country, Congress has rapidly responded. Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA), the chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees, are introducing bipartisan legislation to provide advance appropriations for the VA. And Rey and the rest of our Storm the Hill team of young veterans will be there to support this historic change.
It’s reassuring to know that in these tough fiscal times, Congress is not only listening to Wall Street CEOs, but that they are also listening to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
And Senator Akaka and Congressman Filner are not alone in supporting advanced VA funding. It has a broad coalition of support. President Obama and Senator McCain both backed the idea during the 2008 campaign, and new VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has signaled early support for the concept.
Every major veterans’ organization in America is also on board. The IAVA crew in Washington this week represents the first wave of veterans’ groups hitting Capitol Hill to push for advance appropriations in 2009. This week, the young vets have boldly taken the beach. And in the coming days and weeks, other generations of veterans will follow. We are coordinating our political fire—just like we did on the battlefields of Baghdad and Normandy. Together, we will show Capitol Hill, the media, and the entire country, that 25 million veterans of all generations stand united behind the right solution to fix VA health care funding once and for all.