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Falling Through The Cracks

Jeffrey Henthorn, a twenty-five year old Army Specialist, devoted father and third generation soldier, was a victim amongst the fifty-nine “non-combat related injuries” which plagued the military between 2003-2005, as documented by Courant investigators in May 2006 in an article entitled “Mentally Unfit, Forced to Fight.”

Henthorn, serving on his second tour of Iraq, had previously threatened suicide twice before, as Army investigations have found, and it was also discovered that his superiors knew that he was mental unstable, yet he was still sent back to the front lines to fight, a fatal decision which undoubtedly led to Henthorn’s untimely death.

Henthorn’s suicide, along with those of his fifty-nine colleagues labeled as “non-combat related injuries,” are not only grouped into an unspecific category, but are not discussed or even recognized individually as suicides by the military. According to Courant investigators Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman, these suicides are fueled both by the U.S militaries ignorance of the 1997 Congressional Order, which allows soldiers to be accessed by a mental health professional pre-and post deployment, and the continuing practice of sending “troops with serious psychological problems into Iraq and then keeping soldiers in combat even after superiors have been alerted to suicide warnings and other signs of mental illness.”

Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, the top psychiatry expert for the Army’s surgeon general, acknowledged in a story entitled “Mind Games, Part 1: The Things They Carry,” by Raw Story columnist Nancy Goldstein, “that some practices, such as sending service members diagnosed with PTSD back into combat, had been driven in part by troop shortage.”

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a condition resulting from exposure to an experience involving direct or indirect threat of serious injury or death, such as in military combat, is directly linked to longer and repeated tours which are a result of recruiting shortfalls and pressures for the military to maintain troop levels.  Documented in a report called “VA’s Mental Health Caseload Surges,” by Associated Press reporter Lolita C. Baker,  PTSD is estimated to effect nearly 64,000 of the 184,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars which have sought healthcare from the VA (Veterans Administration).

PTSD, along with depression and other mental diseases, such as bipolar disorder, which causes a person to experience extreme highs and lows, and schizophrenia, in which a person hallucinates either sounds or events which did not take place, while recognized, are merely subject, in some cases, to prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills solicited by military health officials.  Such medicines, called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which are antidepressants used to aid in the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders, are suggested to do more harm than good.

As with most SSRIs, it is made abundantly clear that the patient should be monitored due to the fact that increased risk of suicide is a factor.  A factor that served true in a case of a 26-year old Marine, whom on admitting that he was not sleeping well, was prescribed with a high does of Zoloft and within two months of being on the drug committed suicide, as Chedekel and Kauffman found.  As documented by the investigators, many service members who had been prescribed medicines such as Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Ambien, and other antidepressants, have made it clear that they have received “little or no mental health counseling or monitoring.”

Staff Sergeant Chad Golden of the Army adds that while he does not know what they can and can’t prescribe, any medicine that is needed by the military health specialist for the soldiers while he/she is deployed is readily handy and easy accessed.

Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a patient advocacy group, along with other medical experts and ethicists, comments in Courant’s “Mentally..Fight,” that she “can’t imagine something more irresponsible than putting a soldier suffering from stress on SSRIs, when (it is known that) the drugs can cause people to become suicidal.”

Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman report that the U.S military is not only  condoning the reckless use of prescription drugs and habitually recycling mentally unstable troops who are indeed “unfit to fight,” but that they are going against the 1997 Congressional order that mandates that a soldier not only be screened face-to-face by a mental health professional before he/she marches valiantly off to War, but that he/she be screened on returning also.  It is under these screenings that soldiers with psychological disorders are not being identified and those that are being identified are being sent off to war anyway; a consequence which may have been a factor in the fifty-nine suicides and which may lead to more in the future.

Paul Sullivan, Director of Programs at Veterans for America, a humanitarian organization which was founded originally as Vietnam Veterans of America and fights to help veterans receive both the medical and psychological treatment that they have earned, is very familiar with the 1997 Congressional Order.  Both he and his colleague Steve Robinson, being Gulf War veterans, knew from first hand experiences that without a law making it mandatory to access the mental health of troops both before and after deployment, it was nearly impossible to receive healthcare from the Veterans Administration (VA), military health insurance.  Not being able to prove that their injury, whether it mental or physical, was not a pre-existing condition created a major obstacle for veterans.  So, both Sullivan and Robinson fought to prevent troops from “falling through the cracks” and not being identified with psychological problems by convincing Congress to pass a law mandating that troops be screened pre-and post deployment.

But, in reality, according to both Sullivan and the Courant investigators Chedekel and Kauffman, from the more than 1.3 million troops that have been deployed, less than 1 in 300 are receiving both the pre-and post deployment assessments.  Sullivan adds that “..until 2004 virtually no one was screened before they went off to war (and when they he returned).”

His fears were confirmed when Sergeant Brian Williams of the Marines, who will be sent back for his second tour within the next year, was asked if he had ever received the mandatory pre-and post-deployment screening and he simply replied, “No.”  Golden also replied that he had only been subjugated to post-deployment assessment, though it was lead to believe that it wasn’t a face to face screening that he received, but instead an “opportunity” presented by the Army to be able to talk to anyone if they needed it.  Golden also commented that many of these consultations, if given, were not between a patient and a doctor, but instead conducted in a group, in which a doctor talks to several troops at the same time.

According to Sullivan, Henthorn and the fifty-nine could have been saved if the order put in place by Congress was being upheld.  Using Henthorn as an example, it is easy to see how his life may have been spared by simply taking the time and accessing his mental health, a procedure which seems small in regards to a person’s life.

Sullivan states:

“Screen the soldier before they go.  What does that mean?  Say you screen someone before they go and they have a bad back, do you send them?  No, of course not, because, being a Gulf War Vet, I wouldn’t want to fight next to somebody whose has a bad back and couldn’t carry me out of a combat zone if I got wounded.  Would you send somebody to a war zone that was already having serious psychiatric problems?  No.”

Had Henthorn been screened before his second tour, it would have been discovered that he was mentally unfit, a situation which he made clear, before deployment, in November 2004 to his superiors when he slashed his arms in a manner “intentionally, in a horizontal manner,” as reported by Chedekel and Kauffman.

“Keep track of them while they are in war.  While the soldier is in the war, say they are in a road side bomb blast, and maybe they weren’t hurt, but shouldn’t somebody put that in their record so when they’re dizzy two, three months later, [the doctors can say], “Well maybe what we should do is give you a brain scan, because maybe you really did have some minor brain damage from the past.”

Chedekel and Kaufman report that shortly after his deployment in December 2004, Henthorn “took his gun into a latrine in Kuwait, charged it,” and sat for ten minutes.  Fellow troops feared this to be a suicide attempt and even though his gun was taken away from him and he was given a harsh 30-minute talk to by his platoon sergeant, he evidently, on having his gun returned to him in the same day, found a way out of his hell eighteen days later.  Had this situation been documented at all, it would have been evident that the soldier needed to be sent back to the U.S to receive care, a practice which Golden says happens when a soldier “can’t handle it,” and had he survived his deployment, and not been sent home, he, theoretically, should have been able to receive the mental healthcare he needed on returning.

“Then, when the soldiers come back from the war, they should be screened again. There are guys who have gone over to war one time, come back to the states and diagnosed with serious mental problems, but because we were short troops, that soldier was sent back to Iraq for a second tour, given an M16 and within a few hours, blew their brains out.  That was clearly preventable.”

This held true for young Henthorn when on February 8, 2005 at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, finding no way out, he took his own life by pointing the barrel of his M16 riffle into his mouth and pulling the trigger.  A blast so severe, as an Army report details, that fragments of the soldiers skull pierced the ceiling of the barracks.

A “crime,” as Sullivan says, which could have been prevented if the military ensured that every troop was receiving pre-and post deployment screening.

It is the military’s practices of recycling mentally unstable troops, providing unreliable medicines, and ignoring the 1997 Congressional Order, which protects and prevents our soldiers, who may be mentally and physically handicapped, from slipping through unnoticed, that provided the driving force for the fifty-nine suicides between 2003-2005.  Under these same circumstance, it can be suggested, that if the military does not start providing adequate screenings, then even more soldiers will become statistics. As Paul Sullivan says, “We believe that soldiers are the nation’s most important national defense assets.  Therefore, the greatest emphasis should be placed on making sure that we send the best soldiers into combat, and that means screening; they have earned that right.  To do less is a disservice to those who are protecting our country.”


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