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Soldiers Face Obstacles to Mental Health Services


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good Morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

Tens of thousands of soldiers are returning from Iraq with symptoms of serious mental health problems. That's according to the military's own studies. Those problems include acute depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. Administration officials have promised to heal soldiers suffering from emotional wounds. But an investigation at one army base, Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, reveals that some of the most desperate soldiers are having trouble getting the treatment they need.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Jason Harvey says he never dreamed he'd accuse the U.S. Army of betraying him. He's tacked a banner with the Army seal above his pillow. He cherishes the medals he got fighting in Iraq. But Harvey says if officials at Fort Carson had helped him the way they should have when he came back to the base last year, he probably wouldn't have tried to kill himself, and he'd still be in the Army.

Mr. JASON HARVEY (Iraq War Veteran): Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was a soldier.

ZWERDLING: The Army's records show Harvey was a good soldier in Iraq. He kept getting promoted. But by the time the Army sent his unit back to Fort Carson, Harvey was already having screaming nightmares. His medical records show what he told the doctors - quote, "I am so unhappy that I can't stand it. I have thoughts of killing myself," unquote. The records also show that doctors at Fort Carson gave him only occasional help. And late one night, six months ago, Harvey decided: enough. He was 22 years old.

Mr. HARVEY: I broke down and started crying and picked up a knife and started cutting myself. I started in on the top of my forearms and I made a couple of slits along my wrists. I just wanted to die.

ZWERDLING: Harvey had second thoughts and ended up in the hospital. The psychiatrist there said Harvey had PTSD. But officials at Fort Carson didn't order the medical unit to give him intensive help. Instead, they kicked him out of the Army on the grounds that he had broken some rules. Today, Harvey spends his day sleeping and watching TV in his mother's apartment. He still wakes up screaming from nightmares.

Mr. HARVEY: I think the Army failed me in not getting me the help I needed to cope. It's because at Fort Carson they don't care.

Dr. WILLIAM WINKENWERDER (Defense Health Affairs, Pentagon): There's no military in history that's done more than this military has for their physical health and their mental health.

ZWERDLING: That's the top doctor at the Pentagon. His name is William Winkenwerder. He's assistant secretary of defense. By the time I met with him in his office, I talked to 20 soldiers who've come back to Fort Carson after fighting in Iraq. They all said it's hard at the base to get the help soldiers need. Winkenwerder said he can't talk about Fort Carson, he doesn't know the facts. But those soldiers' stories are the opposite of the way the Army usually treats the troops.

Dr. WINKENWERDER: I draw no distinction between mental health and physical health. If a soldier or a Marine or sailor or airman is wounded, we go to help.

ZWERDLING: And on paper, it looks like the Army has great programs to help soldiers with emotional problems. They offer individual therapy and group therapy. They offer counseling for substance abuse. But in practice, soldiers say the programs at Fort Carson don't work the way they should. For instance, when soldiers come back from the war, they have to fill out a mental health questionnaire. A soldier named Corey Davis says the survey went something like this.

Mr. COREY DAVIS (U.S. Army): Are you feeling any kind of stress at home? Yes. Obviously. Having problems sleeping at night? Yes, nightmares. Yes.

ZWERDLING: Military officials say that's one of the main ways that they spot soldiers who might be in emotional trouble. And Davis says he was in trouble. He says he couldn't stop hearing the screams of the people he'd seen blown up in Iraq.

Did anybody at Fort Carson ever come to you and say, you've checked yes to all these questions; you need help, and here's how we're going to give it to you?

Mr. DAVIS: That never happened, and there was never even nothing like no talk of PTSD. Nothing.

ZWERDLING: Davis isn't the only one. The investigative arm of Congress, the GAO, did a national study on the screening program. And it found that almost 80 percent of the troops who showed potential signs of PTSD were not referred for a mental health follow-up. The Pentagon disagrees with the GAO's findings.

The soldiers say there's another obstacle to getting help, even when they ask for it. The mental health programs at Fort Carson have been overwhelmed by troops coming back from Iraq. So it can take weeks to get an appointment, even when they're feeling desperate. And soldiers say when that precious therapy appointment finally comes around, some officers block them from going to it.

Mr. WILLIAM MORRIS (Iraq War Veteran): Training was more important. Appointments didn't take priority.

ZWERDLING: William Morris is 28. When he came back from Iraq, psychiatrists at Fort Carson diagnosed him with PTSD. They wrote, He is taken things out on his wife; he will need intensive treatment. But Morris says he'd be taking part in some military training exercise with the rest of his platoon, it'd be time to go to therapy, and his supervisors wouldn't let him.

Mr. MORRIS: I'm in the field, I'm telling them, hey, I got an ADAP appointment that I have to be at - alcohol and drug abuse prevention - I have to be there. And they're like, well, you know, you need to call and cancel that.

Sgt. TRAVIS PLATT(ph) (U.S. Army): I have said that to a soldier.

ZWERDLING: That's one of the sergeants in Morris's company, Travis Platt. Now, I tried to talk with the commanding officers who run all of Fort Carson to get their side of the story. They refused. I asked if they'd let me talk to anybody on that base. And an Army spokesman named Paul Boyce said, Nope, not a single one, nada, and you can quote me. But I managed to contact low-level supervisors, like Sergeant Travis Platt. And Platt said it's true, sometimes supervisors do tell soldiers they can't go to therapy, or to any other appointments.

Sgt. PLATT: We have a training schedule. We have things that the Army needs to get done. That's what you're - you need to be focused on. And you can't train for a day, go to appointment, come back, train for a day, go to another appointment. You just don't get any training value out of it.

ZWERDLING: And soldiers say that attitude symbolizes a deeper problem at Fort Carson. They say many officers from the top down have contempt for soldiers who come back from the war with emotional problems. Platt and other sergeants I met agreed, but they said you have to look at the issue from their perspective. Sergeant Platt says, look, he went to the same horrors of the war as everybody else did. He's not falling apart.

Sgt. PLATT: Stuff happened in Iraq, people died, you know, I understand. But then again, I lost two of my friends and the I don't have a problem, you know. I mean, I'm sorry they died and all, but you've got to go on with life.

ZWERDLING: So Platt and other sergeants say most of the soldiers who've come back from Iraq and say they're having emotional problems are faking it.

Sgt. PLATT: People are trying to say they have problems who don't. Just because people are, you know, getting in trouble and they're just blaming it on PTSD.

ZWERDLING: For instance, Platt says some of the soldiers who keep going to the mental health unit are the same ones who've been doing the bad jobs since they come from Iraq. They show up late for formation. Sometimes they don't go to work at all. The officers keep citing them for being dirty, or lying, or taking drugs. I've obtained Army records and they corroborate with what Platt says.

On the other hand, military studies show that when soldiers get PTSD, or other emotional disorders, they often misbehave in just those kinds of ways. It's part of their illness. But Platt says that's no excuse. And he and another sergeant named Drew Preston(ph) says there's another reason why so many soldiers are pretending to have emotional problems.

Sgt. DREW PRESTON (U.S. Army): They don't want to go back to Iraq and they're trying to blame all their life's problems on PTSD.

Sgt. PLATT: The order comes down that, you know, we're going back, and then all of a sudden, oh, I got PTSD. PTSD is pretty much like the back door to get out of the military right now.

ZWERDLING: For the past two months, I've been asking officials at the Pentagon to send information which could show exactly what's going on at Fort Carson. For instance, how many soldiers have gone to the mental health unit? How many have been diagnosed with PTSD? How many soldiers have they kicked out? What are the trends? The Pentagon hasn't sent the answers.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

AMOS: Our investigation continues later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with details about how soldiers with emotional problems are harassed, punished and even forced out of the Army. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.