Mentally Unfit but Serving Anyway

The year began with a story about a 24-year-old ex-soldier who shot and killed a female park ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington before dying of apparent hypothermia, his body face down in the snow.

Months before, the mother of Benjamin Colton Barnes’ young daughter reportedly filed for sole custody of their young daughter as Barnes was suicidal, “gets easily irritated, angry, depressed and frustrated, and “was assembling a small arsenal of weapons in his home.”

Barnes had been kicked out of the military in 2009 after he was charged with drunken driving and transporting a privately owned weapon onto base Fort Lewis-McChord, which last year was named the “most troubled base in the U.S military” by Stars & Stripes magazine due to the high rate of substance abuse, criminal behavior and suicide among the soldiers there.

Most readers have probably never heard this reference to the base before, but Barnes’ shooting spree, which began on New Year’s Eve when he wounded several partygoers after a dispute, and ended with the murder of ranger Margaret Anderson, 34, wife and mother of two young girls, gave reporters a new reason to recount why it received the dubious moniker.

In December, before the Mt. Rainier murder, Stars & Stripes reported on a series of community meetings held to discuss the “base on the brink,” which had experienced a staggering 12 soldier suicides in a year and had been reeling from a “crime wave” that began as early as 2004.

In a horrific story last April, Sgt. David Stewart, a 38-year-old combat medic, shot his wife in the head and then killed himself after a high-speed chase with police.

The body of their 5-year-old son, battered and bruised and a plastic bag over his head, was found at their home. It hasn’t been determined who killed Jordan Stewart because both parents were strung out on the bath salts at the time. In the months leading up to his death, Stewart was said to be “under treatment for depression, paranoia and sleeplessness,” and there had been fighting in the home the night before.

According to the magazine, over the last two years in the Lewis-McChord community:

…an Iraq veteran pleaded guilty to assault after being accused of waterboarding his 7-year-old foster son in the bathtub. Another was accused of pouring lighter fluid over his wife and setting her on fire; one was charged with torturing his 4-year-old daughter for refusing to say her ABCs. A Stryker Brigade soldier was convicted of the kidnap, torture and rape or attempted rape of two women, one of whom he shocked with cables attached to a car battery; and an Iraq war sergeant was convicted of strangling his wife and hiding her body in a storage bin.

“I can tell you that in the last two years, we have had 24 instances in which we contacted soldiers who were armed with weapons,” said local Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar. “We’ve had intimidation, stalking with a weapon, aggravated assault, domestic violence, drive-bys.”

In November, Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 26, who had been stationed ay Lewis-McChord with the 5th Stryker Brigade, was found guilty of killing three Afghans for sport and using their teeth and body parts for trophies in the war. He was the alleged ringleader in a murder-conspiracy that involved four other Stryker Brigade soldiers.

It’s natural for the media to question the soldiers’ and veterans’ combat experiences when these tragedies occur, and whether PTSD or other mental problems stemming from the war played a part in their apparent crack-ups.

Some 14,000 soldiers returned to Lewis-McChord from assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 alone. According to the paper, the local Madigan Army Medical Center just opened a “warrior transition” barracks for wounded or stressed soldiers and their families. More than 118,000 individuals sought help there in 2010.

An estimated 18.5 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans nationwide could be struggling with PTSD today, according to recent studies.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean any or all of them are prone to violence against others, points out Alex Horton on the Veterans Administration blog, VA Vantage Point. He criticized the media’s rush to suggest the Mt. Rainier shooter was suffering from combat-related PTSD. Especially since, shortly after the first-day stories, it was reported that Barnes had served in a headquarters communications job in Iraq and had never seen combat. Before the Army, however, he had once attended a day school for expelled and troubled teens, suggesting his social/mental problems might have begun long before.

“The misguided and incorrect correlation between military service and violent crimes like murder can lead to damaging stereotypes that can inhibit the success of vets once they leave the military,” wrote Horton.

Fair enough. One can appreciate Horton’s response because it’s true: Hollywood especially has exploited and cashed-in on the “unhinged soldier.” In its collective effort to better understand the plight of the veteran post-Vietnam, the American public has generally accepted this broad caricature, and will apply it often unthinkingly, without context, to many of these very real and tragic stories as they unfold.

But while dismissing a direct link between PTSD and violent crime is one thing, it still doesn’t let the military and the effects of war off the hook. And this is the crux of what I’m writing about today — and why I say the military can still be held responsible when people like Benjamin Barnes turn violent.

Psychologically Unfit for Duty?

It might be better to raise the question thusly: in its rush to send hundreds of thousands of young people into its endless wars of choice, did the American government unknowingly — even knowingly — deploy recruits into combat with underlying emotional predispositions to PTSD, substance abuse, violence, or all of the above? Could the military have prevented many of the emotional breakdowns, suicides, domestic abuse, police stand-offs and murders that came later?

It is a provocative question we may never know the complete answer to, but we do have some indication of the military’s complicity. In fact, the clues are in plain sight.

In 2004, United Press International (UPI) reported that the Army might have “inappropriately” sent soldiers diagnosed with mental problems off to war. Reporters obtained an Army survey, commissioned after a string of soldier suicides in-theater, which said in part, that the situation could “create the impression that some soldiers develop problems in theater, when, in some cases, they actually have pre-existing conditions.”

The Army then promised to pursue stricter pre-deployment screening, but that has become somewhat of a holy grail over the last decade. In fact, as Steve Robinson, then-director of the National Gulf War Resource Center pointed out to me back in 2004, the Army has merely flirted with its 1998 mandate to conduct adequate pre- and post-deployment screening of troops, and it has had a most deleterious effect.

According to a Hartford Courant investigation in 2006, only 6.5 percent of the soldiers who indicated a mental health problem in their prescreening were actually referred to a mental health professional before deployment.

    In addition, despite its pledges in 2004 to improve mental health care, the military was more likely to deploy troops who indicated psychological problems in 2005 than it was during the first year of the war, the data show. The Courant found that at least seven, or about one-third, of the 22 soldiers who killed themselves in Iraq in 2005 had been deployed less than three months, raising questions about the adequacy of pre-deployment screening. Some of them had exhibited earlier signs of distress.

“What you have is a military stretched so thin, they’ve resorted to keeping psychologically unfit soldiers at the front,” Robinson told the paper. “It’s a policy that can do an awful lot of damage over time.”

He couldn’t have been more prescient. The numbers get worse. After obtaining a database from the Army a year later, the Hartford Courant found that despite an increase of mental health referrals due to red flags in the prescreening, the Army was still sending a record number of those potentially troubled troops into battle anyway.

“In 2006 and early 2007, 84.5 percent of all troops who screened positive for possible mental health problems were deemed combat-ready,” wrote reporters Matthew Kauffman and Lisa Chedekel. “That number marks a slight decrease since 2005, when 87 percent were deemed deployable.” Meanwhile, the paper reported that soldiers with mental problems were being heavily medicated with no monitoring on the battlefield, and sent back for multiple tours of duty, despite their diagnosed conditions.

At the time, the Army was still figuring out how to make the prescreening more effective. Four years later, they’re still not there. Meanwhile, an Army study came out exactly a year ago that found — surprise — that effective prescreening can help reduce combat stress, psychiatric and behavioral disorders, and suicidal thoughts among troops. The study followed three combat teams that were given extra screening and care prior to deployment to Iraq in 2008. As a result, they reportedly experienced less combat stress in-theater. Too bad for everyone else, for whom the prescreening consisted of a one-page questionnaire and a free ride on a mental roulette wheel.

“We’re excited about what this study shows,” gushed Maj. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s deputy surgeon general, in January 2011. “It is the first direct evidence that a program is effective in preventing adverse behavioral health outcomes.”


Recruiting troubled kids

Meanwhile, the Army does not assemble demographic statistics for new recruits, which might give us a better picture of where they are coming from. But we do know that the Army granted 65 percent more waivers to enlistees with criminal backgrounds between 2003 and 2006, bringing the percentage of recruits that year with criminal histories to 11 percent. It also allowed more high school dropouts and low scorers on the aptitude test to join.

According to the Army’s own statistics, 80,403 total waivers were granted from 2004 to 2009, with more than half going to recruits with convictions for drug and alcohol abuse, misdemeanors and felonies.

“You have a sizable population that has been incarcerated and is not used to the same cultural norms as everybody else,” charged Aaron Belkin, political science professor at the University of California, when The New York Times talked to him for a story about the moral waivers in Feb. 2007.

“The chance that one of those individuals is going to commit an atrocity or disobey an order is higher,” he said. “Many of those individuals can be good soldiers, but in some cases they have special needs. The military should address those needs rather than pretending they don’t exist.”

It seems the only “special need” the military recognizes is its own. It responded to its need to get as many warm bodies into the war zone fast by offering huge signing bonuses to high school kids and for many no doubt, the opportunity to leave a broken home, a dead-end town or provide for a young family. Recruiters under so much pressure were accused of lying to kids and succumbing to the stress themselves. An Army-wide stand-down on recruiting was called 2009 after a spate of suicides among recruiters.

Of course, they needn’t employ these tactics today, with a recession driving enlistment up, forces largely withdrawn from Iraq, and plans for the Army and Marines to begin cutting ranks to 1990’s levels. But some say the damage is already done.

Lost Boys

Kenneth Eastridge didn’t need to be lied to or wooed by a recruiter. According to his profile in David Philipps’ Lethal Warriors When the Band of Brothers Came Home, Eastridge joined the Army at 19 “to save himself from a life that never had much chance of being anything but a disaster.” His mother was a crack addict and took off when he was nine, leaving him with an estranged father. At 12, he accidentally shot and killed his best friend playing with his father’s gun. His prospects and confidence dim, the Army took him in on a waiver five years later.

Eastridge was not alone. “Almost all these soldiers were troubled kids,” his lieutenant told Philipps for the book. “We got kids from rough backgrounds, you took care of them, taught them teamwork, taught them respect.”

But when Eastridge was suffering from a drug problem and in trouble with the law, instead of “taking care of him,” the Army sent him right back overseas. He told Philipps the Army taught him to be a killer and he was good at it. When he got back he kept killing, and is now doing 10 years in prison for being an accessory to murder.

Salon recently reviewed a new book by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley that explores the link between fetal and childhood trauma and developmental health. Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma and Disease, asserts that babies and children who live with prolonged emotional trauma like abuse and neglect are more at risk for seemingly unrelated but severe health problems, like cancer, chronic pain and diabetes. They are also less equipped to deal with emotional stresses and trauma — like combat — as adults.

Given Eastridge’s background, he could be a classic case. We do not know how many Eastridges were sent to war. Like Sgt. Stewart, who killed himself and his wife, possibly their son too, we may have no clue until it’s too late what makes them tick, or whether the military could have prevented disaster.

Stewart’s father-in-law opened one tiny window when he told the press Stewart was “unstable” before joining the Army and serving his two tours in Iraq.

Reports indicate Stewart, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was already undergoing counseling for alcohol abuse and marital problems when he was redeployed in 2008.

Follow Kelley Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.