U.S. military violated own rules on mentally ill troops, newspaper
U.S. military troops with severe psychological problems have been sent to Iraq
or kept in combat, even when superiors have been aware of signs of mental illness,
a newspaper reported for Sunday editions.
The Hartford Courant, citing records obtained under the federal Freedom of
Information Act and more than 100 interviews of families and military personnel,
reported numerous cases in which the military failed to follow its own regulations
in screening, treating and evacuating mentally unfit troops from Iraq.
In 1997, Congress ordered the military to assess the mental health of all deploying
troops. The newspaper, citing Pentagon statistics, said fewer than 1 in 300
service members were referred to a mental health professional before shipping
out for Iraq as of October 2005.
Twenty-two U.S. troops committed suicide in Iraq last year, accounting for nearly
one in five of all non-combat deaths and was the highest suicide rate since the
war started, the newspaper said.
‘Chemically active time bombs’
Some service members who committed suicide in 2004 and 2005 were kept on duty
despite clear signs of mental distress, sometimes after being prescribed antidepressants
with little or no mental health counseling or monitoring. Those findings conflict
with regulations adopted last year by the Army that caution against the use
of antidepressants for “extended deployments.”
“I can’t imagine something more irresponsible than putting a soldier
suffering from stress on (antidepressants), when you know these drugs can cause
people to become suicidal and homicidal,” said Vera Sharav, president
of the Alliance for Human Research Protection. “You’re creating
chemically activated time bombs.”
Although Defense Department standards for enlistment disqualify recruits who
suffer “persistent post-traumatic symptoms,” the military also is
redeploying service members to Iraq who fit that criteria, the newspaper said.
“I’m concerned that people who are symptomatic are being sent back.
That has not happened before in our country,” said Dr. Arthur S. Blank,
Jr., a Yale-trained psychiatrist who helped to get post-traumatic stress disorder
recognized as a diagnosis after the Vietnam War.
‘Recruiting has been a challenge’
The Army’s top mental health expert, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, acknowledged
that some deployment practices, such as sending service members diagnosed with
post-traumatic stress syndrome back into combat, have been driven in part by
a troop shortage.
“The challenge for us ... is that the Army has a mission to fight. And,
as you know, recruiting has been a challenge,” she said. “And so
we have to weigh the needs of the Army, the needs of the mission, with the soldiers’
Ritchie insisted the military works hard to prevent suicides, but is a challenge
because every soldier has access to a weapon.
Commanders, not medical professionals, have final say over whether a troubled
soldier is retained in the war zone. Ritchie and other military officials said
they believe most commanders are alert to mental health problems and are open
to referring troubled soldiers for treatment.
“Your average commander doesn’t want to deal with a whacked-out
soldier. But on the other hand, he doesn’t want to send a message to his
troops that if you act up, he’s willing to send you home,” said
Maj. Andrew Efaw, a judge advocate general officer in the Army Reserves who
handled trial defense for soldiers in northern Iraq last year.