COLORADO SPRINGS, May 13, 2004 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Soldiers at Fort Carson report a wave of serious mental problems among troops back from the "war on terrorism," according to interviews with soldiers, their families and a therapist working with them.
The torment seems linked to troubling behavior -- including a suicide, violence and heavy drinking among a number of the 12,000 troops arriving back in Colorado Springs, nestled in the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 60 miles south of Denver.
They say the Army frequently fails to diagnose or properly help suffering soldiers. In some cases -- particularly in elite fighting units -- soldiers hide problems fearing damage to their careers, turning instead to alcohol and sometimes resulting in domestic violence.
"The pattern I'm seeing is that they are not being evaluated very thoroughly," said Kaye Baron, a clinical psychologist in Colorado Springs. Baron treats soldiers in her private practice and helps the Department of Veterans Affairs evaluate the mental health of soldiers leaving the Army.
Baron said the Army is not properly diagnosing or treating soldiers who have mental problems. Instead, some are pushed out of the Army, making them feel worse.
"Why is the military discounting the problems? Why are they disposing of people? Do they not have the resources? Are they in denial? Is it corruption? I'd like to know," Baron said. "My belief is that we should honor these soldiers and acknowledge that these people are going to be affected."
Among the incidents:
Two soldiers deployed from Fort Carson apparently committed suicide in Iraq, according to soldiers and data compiled by United Press International. Another two Fort Carson died in Iraq in incidents reported as "non-combat-related" weapons discharges -- a term employed by the Pentagon to refer to accidents or suicides.
In March, Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer William Howell shot himself in the head in front of his Monument, Colo., home just three weeks after returning to Fort Carson from Iraq. Before taking his own life, Howell beat his wife and threatened her with his .357-caliber revolver before putting the gun to his own temple and firing.
Interviews showed other frightening behavior:
"I wake up sometimes with a fat lip," said the husband of one soldier during an interview with the couple at a restaurant north of town. Since returning from Iraq last summer, his wife not only punches and hits him in her sleep, she recently "freaked out" during the day, punching and biting him in the belief that he intended to kill her.
Soldiers interviewed at Fort Carson insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution. They said they knew that the Army charged one Fort Carson soldier, Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, with cowardice last year after he apparently asked his chain of command for help with what he said was a panic attic in Iraq. That charge was dropped, but his legal status, career and medical care remain in limbo.
Like Pogany, some soldiers at Fort Carson are worried that some of the emotional turbulence may be long-term side effects from Lariam, an anti-malaria drug heavily used among troops deployed from the base. The Food and Drug Administration warns that Lariam may cause long-term depression, psychosis, aggression, anxiety, panic attacks and sleeping problems, and it warns about reports of suicide among users. Combat stress -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- also can produce those symptoms. Howell, the Special Forces soldier who committed suicide, took Lariam in Iraq.
One Special Forces soldier at Fort Carson said mental problems are occurring even in elite units returning from war, but soldiers will not admit it. "Everybody has it," this soldier said. "If somebody says they don't have it, they are lying."
"In Special Forces, you are supposed to be in an elite crowd. When you are in that type of field, you don't show any weakness, even when you are being torn up." He said he can't sleep and drinks too much. "We all came back with drinking problems," he said of his unit. He said his temper is frightening and that he sometimes has the urge to tackle problems "the way that I did over there" -- by killing.
Fort Carson spokesman Richard Bridges said Fort Carson would not respond to any questions on this article and would not allow a reporter on the base. The Department of the Army referred questions to Army Forces Command in Atlanta. Jack Coffey, a spokesman for Army Forces Command, did not respond to requests for comment made by phone and in writing.
Bridges has told reporters that soldiers must receive seven hours of counseling for a deployment. None of the soldiers interviewed by UPI said they had received seven hours of counseling. The Special Forces soldier said he had received his first mental health debriefing months after returning from war.
Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center and a retired Army Ranger, has visited returning troops in the United States and Europe. Post-traumatic stress disorder rates among troops from the first Gulf War ran around 6 percent, he said, but he estimates PTSD among veterans from Iraq at 14 percent and climbing. With well over 100,000 troops returning from Iraq this year, Robinson predicted a "wave" of serious issues among troops back home.
"We have not seen but the froth of the wave of people who will come back with mental problems," he said.
A soldier at Fort Carson with the 52nd Engineer Combat Battalion said he is suffering from anxiety attacks, sleeplessness and intense anger he said he did not have before serving in Iraq. He said the Army has diagnosed him with a major depression disorder. "I don't feel depressed," he said about the Army diagnosis. "But I guess I don't have to feel depressed to be depressed."
He claims that in Iraq a physician's assistant -- not a psychiatrist -- handed him anti-depressant drugs and sleeping pills. He also claims he was threatened because of his anger problems. "When I went to Combat Stress they told me that if I had one more outburst they would (put) me out (of the Army) with a personality disorder," the soldier said.
The wife of another soldier in that unit complained that her husband had become increasingly violent since returning from Iraq and recently tore off the top of the stove. "He threw the stovetop at me. He's always had a temper, but not like this," she said.
The mental issues at Fort Carson appear similar to problems across the country apparent in interviews at other bases, media reports and Pentagon data.
At least seven soldiers, including Howell, returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom and committed suicide, according to the Army. At least 23 soldiers committed suicide in Iraq and Kuwait during 2003. Another two soldiers have committed suicide there this year.
Two of the suicides in the United States occurred at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, the Army's flagship hospital. Soldiers there recently report at least two other suicide attempts among soldiers back from Iraq. Walter Reed spokesman Jim Stueve referred questions to the Army Surgeon General. The Surgeon General's office did not comment.
Army Reservist Lt. Brandon Ratliff, a veteran of Afghanistan, shot himself in the head last month after he lost a promotion promised to him by a city agency in Columbus, Ohio. At least six others who served in Operation Enduring Freedom, the broader "war on terrorism" including Afghanistan, have committed suicide after returning.
Other returning soldiers have turned their anger outward, with frightening and sometimes bizarre consequences.
Police say Master Sgt. Kenneth Lee Schweitzer walked into a bank in Keokuk, Iowa, in April, fired a large-caliber handgun into the air, demanded cash, and then drove to the local police department and surrendered. Schweitzer, an Iraq war veteran from the 101st Airborne Division, reportedly told police he wanted to be put in jail because he "just couldn't take it anymore." He reportedly chose a one-story bank so he could safely fire his weapon toward the ceiling.
Also in April, a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C., was charged with felony child abuse in the severe beating of his 2-year-old daughter. Authorities said alcohol did not appear to be a factor, the Fayetteville Observer reported. He had been in Iraq for a month earlier this year. It was not clear why his tour was so short.
Soldiers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom have allegedly committed a total of four homicides since returning:
- In Columbus, Ga., four Fort Benning soldiers are charged in connection with the killing of a fifth a few days after returning from Iraq in July; police said one soldier stabbed the victim dozens of times, even piercing his skull.
- In Tampa, Fla., a soldier who returned from to MacDill Air Force Base last spring was charged with killing his girlfriend six weeks later. A police detective described the scene as gruesome, with "blood from one end of that apartment to the other" and the victim stabbed in the thigh, right arm and left eye and shot in the left arm, left cheek and left ear, according to the Denver Post.
- A third homicide is cited in an Army advisory team report on mental health problems among U.S. troops in Iraq. It occurred four months after the soldier's return, the report says: "The soldier allegedly shot and killed a man who was vandalizing his vehicle and committed suicide soon thereafter. Both soldiers had a history of psychiatric treatment." The report notes "the possibility that (Iraq)-related factors" played a role.
- Most recently, an Army sergeant back from a year in Iraq is charged with drowning his wife in April near Fort Lewis, Wash. His family told reporters that he had changed in Iraq, where he drove heavy equipment.
The Special Forces soldier interviewed near Fort Carson predicted more problems as returning soldiers have trouble readjusting to civilian life. "Give it two months, when all these people are back," he said.
Baron, the clinical psychologist in Colorado Springs, worries that some soldiers' problems may last a long time. She estimates she has evaluated more than 700 veterans over the past 18 months, including around 50 back from Iraq in the past few months.
"This war is going to cause a detriment to our society," she said.
Copyright 2004 by United Press International.