Whistleblower Psychiatrist Warns of Soldier-on-Soldier Violence

MARFA, Texas – Kernan Manion, a psychiatrist who was hired last January to treat Marines returning from war who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other acute mental health problems borne from their deployments, fears more soldier-on-soldier violence without radical changes in the current soldier health care system.

Working for a personnel-recruiting company which was contracted by the Defense Department at Camp Lejeune, Manion became alarmed at the military’s inability to give sufficient treatment to returning soldiers. He was also concerned by their reports of outright abuse meted out by some commanders against lower-ranking soldiers who sought help.

Manion told IPS that last April two Marines urgently sought his help soon after the clinic opened at 7 a.m. They told him, "One of these guys is liable to come back [from Iraq or Afghanistan] with a loaded weapon and open fire."

This episode is just one that is indicative of pervasive and worsening systemic problems afflicting a military mental health care system that is overburdened, overstressed, understaffed, and ill equipped, according to Manion. Care is also administered by career military officers who are "ill- trained to provide the complex psychiatric expertise necessary to effectively treat psychologically impaired soldiers."

Manion explained to IPS that upon returning home, troops suffering from myriad new-onset deployment-related mental health problems were flooding the available resources. When they did come in, they had to bear the brunt of pervasive harassment and often outright psychological abuse from Marine Corps superiors who refused to acknowledge the validity, much less the severity of their problems.

"I saw previously strong Marines, people who were now very fragile – who were broken by two or more deployments – come back to be squashed by their commanders, who told them they were ‘goddamn losers,’" Manion told IPS.

Manion went on to warn his superiors of the widespread systemic problems – he informed them that he was alarmed at the possibility of these leading to violence on the base.

Rather than being praised for his series of increasingly urgent memos on the impending disaster, Manion was fired by the contractor that hired him. While a spokeswoman for the firm says it released Manion at the behest of the Navy, the Navy preferred not to comment on this story.

Chuck Luther is a two-tour Iraq war veteran and a former sergeant who served 12 years in the military. He is also the founder and director of The Soldier’s Advocacy Group of Disposable Warriors and lives in Killeen, nearby Fort Hood, where he used to be based.

Luther told IPS that he is working on 20 cases of soldiers suffering from PTSD who have been either maltreated by their commanders, have not been given proper treatment for their PTSD, or both.

He hopes to avoid another disaster like that which occurred on Nov. 5, when Maj. Nidal Hassan – suffering from a combination of secondary trauma and dealing with major ongoing harassment for being a Muslim – went on a shooting spree that killed 13 soldiers and wounded dozens more.

"The ground has been laid for another crisis, another shooting… it’s volatile here, nothing has been resolved," Luther told IPS. "The average Joe on the street thinks things are resolved here, but they are anything but resolved. We are primed to have more soldier-on-soldier violence if something doesn’t change right away."

Manion holds deep concern for the future of both those treating traumatized soldiers and the soldiers themselves.

"If not more Fort Hoods, Camp Liberties, soldier fratricide, spousal homicide, we’ll see it individually in suicides, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, family dysfunction, in formerly fine young men coming back and saying, as I’ve heard so many times, ‘I’m not cut out for society. I can’t stand people. I can’t tolerate commotion. I need to live in the woods.’ That’s what we’re going to have. Broken, not contributing, not functional, members of society," Manion explained.

In 2008, according to the Marine Corps, at least 42 Marines committed suicide, and at least 146 others attempted to do so.

An example of what Manion and Luther are concerned about is U.S. Army Spc. Lateef al-Saraji, a decorated combat veteran, who came back from the occupation of Iraq with severe PTSD.

When Saraji returned to the U.S., it took him months to get an appointment with a counselor on his base. He was then referred to an off-base psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with severe PTSD.

In an e-mail to Luther, Saraji wrote that he "felt that the Army did not care about me and my superiors did not seem to care. On July 1 the psychologist, Mr. Leach, wrote a letter recommending I have two weeks off."

Rather than follow the recommendation of Leach, Saraji’s commander, Sgt. 1st Class Duncan, accused Saraji of going absent without leave and told him he would not be given the two weeks off and he would be written up.

"I got too depressed," Saraji wrote of his experience. "I was going to kill myself. I was depressed and tired of the racism and prejudice that I was receiving. I was talking on the phone with the chaplain and he heard me cock my gun."

Luckily, very shortly thereafter three officers appeared at his door and took him to nearby Fort Hood, where he was admitted into a psychiatric unit for a week. From there he was transferred to a facility in Wichita Falls for three weeks, where he was jumped by five soldiers who harassed him and called him a "towel head" and "sand nigger." He was moved to a different floor of that hospital, but wrote, "I was afraid for my safety so I tried to run away from the hospital."

Saraji returned to Fort Hood, only to find Duncan writing him up yet again. According to Saraji, when Duncan learned Saraji had nearly attempted suicide, he coolly told Saraji that he should go kill himself.

"Either Duncan was about to end up injured, or Saraji was going to injure himself," Luther, who is appalled at Saraji’s treatment by his commander, told IPS. "These lower-level commanders continue to intimidate and harass these soldiers, even soldiers who want to be deployed. Saraji had even offered to go back to Iraq. When you go find these guys getting kicked out for misconduct, you’ll find that prior to this you had commanders pushing them, punishing them, and harassing them, then they break."

The warnings of Luther and Manion have already proven prophetic.

On Nov. 22, Killeen police reported that Fort Hood soldier Army Spc. David Middlebrooks was stabbed to death. The next day, 22-year-old Joshua Wyatt, another Fort Hood soldier, was shot to death in his residence. The killers of both soldiers are alleged to be Fort Hood soldiers as well.

Killings involving Fort Hood soldiers have been commonplace in recent years, even prior to the mass killing on Nov. 5. In the years leading up to that event, soldiers from Fort Hood were involved in the deaths of at least seven people in the previous five years alone, several of these incidents being soldier-on-soldier violence.

Taking one of these as an example, in September 2008, Spc. Jody Wirawan fatally shot 1st Lt. Robert Fletcher. When Killeen police arrived, Wirawan proceeded to commit suicide.

In addition, Luther told IPS that at least two soldiers at Fort Hood have attempted suicide since Nov. 5.

And the killings are not limited to Fort Hood.

In upstate New York in the town of Leray, on the outskirts of Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, between Nov. 29 and 30, soldiers Waide James and Diego Valbuena were murdered by Joshua Hunter, another Fort Drum soldier, according to Jefferson County Sheriff John Burns.

Both victims died of multiple stab wounds.

On Sept. 29, five weeks before the massacre at Fort Hood, Manion sent a letter to President Barack Obama.

Manion’s letter stated, "Frankly, in my more than 25 years of clinical practice, I have never seen such immense emotional suffering and psychological brokenness – literally, a relentless stream of courageous, well-trained, and formerly strong Marines, deeply wounded psychologically by the immensity of their combat experiences."

The letter went on to explain how he had, over the previous six months, raised serious concerns "about several very dangerous inadequacies of the clinics [at Camp Lejeune] operations as well as recurring incidents of significant psychological abuse of Marines who were seeking our care."

The doctor warned President Obama that his experience at Camp Lejeune "represents a more pervasive problem at Camp Lejeune and perhaps even throughout the institutional culture of the military."

Seeing the clear potential for the impending disaster of soldier-on-soldier violence as a result of untreated PTSD, Manion’s letter continued with a sense of urgency: "Mr. President, given what I’ve witnessed and personally experienced, I think that, beyond the immediate issue of my firing and my patients’ care, it’s vital that these flaws be named and examined."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is the author of Beyond the Green Zone.