Soldiers’ mental wounds must be taken seriously
Just when one begins to believe our government has abandoned its disgraceful neglect of the needs of our returning wounded veterans, a new incident of contempt toward those who have sacrificed so much has surfaced.
The Washington Post, in a front-page story, recently reported on a disturbing case involving the callous and insensitive attitude that our Army still too frequently exhibits when the wounded veteran is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or, in other words, has suffered mental illness stemming from his or her experiences in the war zones of Iraq or Afghanistan.
First Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside has given her country years of commendable military service. For the past few years, she was attached to the ambulance corps at the Army veterans hospital at Walter Reed. Her first assignment at Walter Reed in 2005 was supervising 150 soldiers and officers. She came to believe the experience she had in dealing with casualties might be more helpful in Iraq and volunteered in 2006 for such duty. She was assigned to ambulance duty at the small hospital in the Baghdad prison where Saddam Hussein and other high-level Iraq captives were imprisoned. She was there when, the day after Saddam’s execution, the prisoners rioted and engaged in considerable violence.
Nonetheless, she stated: “I loved our mission transporting sick and wounded soldiers and Iraqis to the prison hospital. That represented the best of America taking care of the enemy regardless of what they are doing to us.” Her commanding officer in Iraq, Lt. Col. Darlene, praised her performance. “She has produced outstanding results in one of the most demanding combat zones,” the colonel reported.
But soon, Whiteside’s behavior began to deteriorate. She became troubled and withdrawn, secluded and apparently depressed. Finally, one afternoon after a violent outburst, she shot herself in the stomach.
Military law allows prosecution of such a soldier, claiming that suicidal conduct affects the discipline of the military unit and brings discredit to the armed forces. The suicidal soldier faces up to life imprisonment if convicted of that crime.
Whiteside was returned from the battlefield of Baghdad to Walter Reed for treatment of her self-inflicted, severe physical wounds. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, stayed by her side for the several months she was being medically treated. He was properly given the same courtesy our government extends to all parents or spouses of wounded veterans being treated at Walter Reed – housing and a small subsistence allowance during the time of his daughter’s ordeal.
After several months, her physical recovery from her gunshot wounds enabled Whiteside to be transferred to the psychiatric ward of Walter Reed. Psychiatrists there diagnosed her as having a severe mental disorder probably caused by the stress of serving in a war zone.
When the lieutenant was transferred from medical treatment of her wounds to the psychiatric ward for further treatment, the hospital evicted her dad from government-supported facilities at the hospital and ended his subsistence payments. That action alone clearly demonstrates the contempt held by too many in our military for their mentally damaged comrades.
Incredibly, the Army now is conducting a preliminary hearing at Walter Reed to determine if Whiteside should be tried for a crime. If she is found guilty of trying to commit suicide, a sentence of life imprisonment remains a possibility.
Fortunately, the doctors at Walter Reed have a more sympathetic understanding of the medical condition of a suicidal soldier than do many of the Army’s officers.
At the preliminary hearing for Whiteside, Col. George Brandt, a senior Walter Reed hospital physician, was being cross-examined by an indignant Army prosecutor who questioned his diagnosis of Whiteside as suffering post-traumatic stress disorder caused by duty served in a combat zone.
Brandt angrily replied, “I’m not here to play legal games. I am here out of my genuine concern for a human being that’s breaking and that is broken. Let’s treat her as a human being, for Christ’s sake!”
The Army prosecutor, Maj. Steven Wolfe, expressed precisely the opposite view of Whiteside’s claim of mental illness. He warned her lawyer not to present a defense of his client that would be “psychobabble” in nature.
We don’t yet know whether the court will allow this travesty of justice to continue to trial. That soon will be decided. But whatever decision the court makes, it already has sadly demonstrated that we still have a long way yet to go before post-traumatic stress disorder wounded veterans are never, ever, treated as cowards or criminals.
– Jerome Waldie is a former U.S. congressman and a Placerville resident.