What PTSD, pt II
Army Spec. Jeffrey Henthorn
Mentally Unfit, Forced To Fight
By LISA CHEDEKEL And MATTHEW KAUFFMAN
The Hartford Courant
May 14 2006
Despite a congressional order that the military assess the mental health of all deploying troops, fewer than 1 in 300 service members see a mental health professional before shipping out.
Once at war, some unstable troops are kept on the front lines while on potent antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, with little or no counseling or medical monitoring.
And some troops who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq are being sent back to the war zone, increasing the risk to their mental health.
These practices, which have received little public scrutiny and in some cases violate the military's own policies, have helped to fuel an increase in the suicide rate among troops serving in Iraq, which reached an all-time high in 2005 when 22 soldiers killed themselves - accounting for nearly one in five of all Army non-combat deaths.
The Courant's investigation found that at least 11 service members who committed suicide in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 were kept on duty despite exhibiting signs of significant psychological distress. In at least seven of the cases, superiors were aware of the problems, military investigative records and interviews with families indicate.
Among the troops who plunged through the gaps in the mental health system was Army Spec. Jeffrey Henthorn, a young father and third-generation soldier, whose death last year is still being mourned by his native Choctaw, Okla.
What his hometown does not know is that Henthorn, 25, had been sent back to Iraq for a second tour, even though his superiors knew he was unstable and had threatened suicide at least twice, according to Army investigative reports and interviews. When he finally succeeded in killing himself on Feb. 8, 2005, at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, an Army report says, the work of the M-16 rifle was so thorough that fragments of his skull pierced the barracks ceiling.
In a case last July, a 20-year-old soldier who had written a suicide note to his mother was relieved of his gun and referred for a psychological evaluation, but then was accused of faking his mental problems and warned he could be disciplined, according to what he told his family. Three weeks later, after his gun had been handed back, Pfc. Jason Scheuerman, of Lynchburg, Va., used it to end his life.
Also kept in the war zone was Army Pfc. David L. Potter, 22, of Johnson City, Tenn., who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression while serving in Iraq in 2004. Potter remained with his unit in Baghdad despite a suicide attempt and a psychiatrist's recommendation that he be separated from the Army, records show. Ten days after the recommendation was signed, he slid a gun out from under another soldier's bed, climbed to the second floor of an abandoned building and shot himself through the mouth, the Army has concluded.
The spike in suicides among the all-volunteer force is a setback for military officials, who had pledged in late 2003 to improve mental health services, after expressing alarm that 11 soldiers and two Marines had killed themselves in Iraq in the first seven months of the war. When the number of suicides tumbled in 2004, top Army officials had credited their renewed prevention efforts.
But The Courant's review found that since 2003, the military has increasingly sent, kept and recycled troubled troops into combat - practices that undercut its assurances of improvements. Besides causing suicides, experts say, gaps in mental health care can cause violence between soldiers, accidents and critical mistakes in judgment during combat operations.
Military experts and advocates point to recruiting shortfalls and intense wartime pressure to maintain troop levels as reasons more service members with psychiatric problems are being deployed to the war zone and kept there.
"What you have is a military stretched so thin, they've resorted to keeping psychologically unfit soldiers at the front," said Stephen Robinson, the former longtime director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. "It's a policy that can do an awful lot of damage over time."
Army officials confirmed that 22 soldiers killed themselves in Iraq, and three in Afghanistan, in 2005. The Army suicide rate was about 20 per 100,000 soldiers serving in Iraq - nearly double the 2004 rate, and higher than the 2003 rate that had prompted alarm. Three Marines also committed suicide in Iraq last year.
The military does not discuss or even identify individual suicide cases, which are grouped with other non-combat deaths. The Courant identified suicide victims through Army investigative reports and interviews with families.
Although The Courant determined that a spate of six suicides occurred within eight weeks last year, from late May to July, there is no indication that the military took steps to respond to the cluster.
While the 2005 jump in self-inflicted deaths was as pronounced as the 2003 spike that had stirred action, Army officials said last week that there were no immediate plans to change the approach or resources targeted to mental health. They said they had confidence in the initiatives put in place two years ago - additional combat stress teams to treat deployed troops and increased suicide prevention programs.
Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the top psychiatry expert for the Army surgeon general, said that while the Army is reviewing the 2005 suicides as a way to gauge its mental health efforts, "suicide rates go up and down, and we expect some variation."
Ritchie said the mental health of troops remains a priority as the war enters its fourth year. But she also acknowledged that some practices, such as sending service members diagnosed with PTSD 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' personal needs."
But The Courant's investigation shows that troubled soldiers are getting lost in the balance:
Jeffrey Henthorn was lost in that balance
`Jeffrey Was Really Messed Up'
By LISA CHEDEKEL
The Hartford Courant
May 14 2006
DEL CITY, Okla. -- There is not enough guilt to go around here, so intent is each woman in Jeffrey Henthorn's life on owning a piece of the blame.
His sister, Shannon Austill, had found him in the living room, laughing at a CD he had brought back from his first combat tour - images of Iraqi adults and children who had been shot, dismembered, burned beyond recognition.
"Jeffrey," she remembers chastising him, "that's immoral. That's disgraceful. Why do you have these pictures?"
He had shrugged her off. "I don't know - because I can't believe it," she recalls him saying. "Anyway, c'mon, they're all dead."
When she hugged him goodbye, her brave soldier son - the boy who had grown up respecting the uniform, in the sprawling shadow of Tinker Air Force Base - had crumpled in her arms.
"I don't want to go back," he sobbed. "I don't want to go."
She told him she loved him and that everything would be OK.
And then she did what she was supposed to do:
She left him there.
Henthorn is one of 11 service members identified by The Courant who killed themselves in 2004 and 2005 after being kept in Iraq despite obvious mental problems. His family agreed to speak out in the hope that "we can maybe save a couple of families from what's happened to us," in Warren Henthorn's words.
Then, when the report finally arrived last month, it contained no mention of the possibility of combat-related stress, and made only passing reference to his son's suicide threats - the first, shortly before his second deployment to Iraq, when he crashed his car and then slashed his arm with a knife, and the second, three weeks before he died, when he locked himself in a latrine with his rifle in Kuwait and had to be forcibly removed before he could harm himself.
In the next year, the two would drop out of school - Jeffrey at the end of his junior year, Trisha as a senior - and move in together to a rundown apartment in Midwest City. Both would earn their GEDs, and Jeffrey would juggle jobs at Pizza Hut and his father's business to cover the bills.
Shortly before Trisha became pregnant with their son, Chance, in 1997, Jeffrey came home one day and abruptly told her he was joining the National Guard.
"He said to me, `My Mom's picking me up. They're making me go in the Guard,'" she recalls. "I said, `Are you going to have to go away from me?' He said, `Yeah. But let me do this for them.'"
Kay Henthorn acknowledges that she and Warren had pushed their only son to join the Reserve after he dropped out of school. About that, she expresses no regret.
"He needed structure. I wasn't about to watch him lay around and waste his life," Kay says. "He took to it fine. It was a once-a-month thing. He was always responsible about doing his duty."
Jeffrey's family says he seemed proud of his role in the Guard, and the experience helped him mature. The teenager whose moods rose and fell on the rock band Linkin Park, Austin Powers movies, Mustang cars and Sooner football was responding to tornado emergencies and hauling hay to cattle farmers affected by drought.
Jeffrey joined the Army on March 3, 2003, walking away with a $6,000 signing bonus and an assignment to Fort Riley, about five hours away.
When Operation Shock and Awe started 16 days later, Kay wasn't worried.
Everyone said it would be over in a couple of weeks.
Hazy, Empty Eyes
When Jeffrey came home from Baghdad in the spring of 2004, the first things they noticed were his eyes.
"They were glossy, kind of hazy," Jayme says.
"They were empty, like all the emotion was gone," Trisha says.
"He just had this blank stare, like he wasn't there," Shannon says.
Jeffrey, a truck and tank driver, had seemed to adapt well during his 11-month tour, asking his mother to send him candy to give out to Iraqi children, and writing candid letters to his son Chance.
"It is very hot here," he wrote in one such letter. "Sometimes there are bombs that go off. People shoot at us, but don't worry, we shoot back. ... Nothing is gonna happen to daddy.
"I am here for good reasons," he had explained to the 6-year-old. "But I wish I was home."
The eyes were just the first clue to a change in Jeffrey that the people closest to him still have trouble understanding. The CD of dead bodies, the confessions, the fear of going back - there were hints strewn everywhere Jeffrey went, but what to make of them? According to the Army, he was just fine.
And yet they knew he wasn't.
During a visit home in the summer, family members say, Jeffrey seemed sullen, withdrawn. Because his marriage to his second wife had fallen apart during his deployment, Jayme says, they assumed he was depressed about "having nobody to come home to."
But the divorce alone did not account for his peculiar behavior, family members say.
It didn't explain why he had yanked Shannon out of bed one night as she slept and urged her to "Get down! Get down!"
"He scared me to death. I couldn't tell if he was really awake," Shannon recalls. "I was like, `Jeffrey Stewart, what on earth are you doing? You're home now.' He just said, `I don't feel like I'm home.'"
The Army Report
Spec. Jeffrey Henthorn killed himself over girlfriend trouble.
That's what the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command implies in a 106-page report on his death.
Although Alainna Neal herself and several other soldiers told investigators that the couple was not having any serious problems, the Army inquiry is focused almost exclusively on the relationship. The possibility of combat stress is never discussed. In fact, the report does not even mention that Henthorn had completed one tour in Iraq and died just weeks into his second deployment.
Neal would end up the only witness to Henthorn's death, three weeks after his Kuwait suicide threat.
According to Neal's statement to investigators, Henthorn came into her room at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, around noon on Feb. 8, when he was supposed to be working on paperwork for a promotion, and presented her with birthday and Valentine's Day cards. He sat on the floor near her bed and asked her what she thought of the cards.
"I told him that for where we were, they meant a lot and that it showed he cared, even being out here," she told investigators, according to a transcript.
He then asked for the key to her wall locker and took out her gun. When she asked him what he was doing, he said "he was going to make my birthday memorable," her statement says. He fired one shot into his head and collapsed on the floor, while she screamed in vain, "No! No! Jeff!" The blast tore off a portion of his skull, and he died instantly.
Neal, who now lives in Texas, declined to speak with The Courant, but sent an e-mail response. "All I can say is the man was sick. He shouldn't have been over there," she wrote.
Let's face it, how many people really care about these soldiers?" he says matter-of-factly. "I mean, it's not your kids, right? Not that many people are being affected. They're out of sight, out of mind.
"You're down at Wal-Mart, you're over at Target, just like always," he finishes. "This is somebody else's kid."
posted by Steve @ 7:55:00 AM