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The feature article this week comes from the National Catholic Report and is about the large number of soldiers returning home from the Iraq war with mental health illnesses and how they are neglected. Recently we have heard from the ABC anchor who received brain injuries in Iraq of how many of these soldiers are neglected once they are sent home. Persons with mental illnesses, which are even more hidden physically, are also being neglected. This is the story about one soldier, Eugene Cherry, who instead of receiving treatment is now facing court martial due to his mental illness developed in the war.

Issue Date: May 25, 2007

Returning soldiers’ mental health neglected

Fort Drum, N.Y.

Eugene Cherry’s life hasn’t been the same since he deployed to Iraq in 2004. Now back home, Cherry said he still hasn’t recovered from his wartime experience.

“There’s many times I’ve drunk myself to sleep because I can’t fall asleep, and the meds they gave me didn’t help,” said Cherry.

Working in Iraq as a medic routinely assigned to deal with the aftermath of suicide bombings, kidnappings and roadside bombs, Cherry was witness to some of the most gruesome scenes of war.

“I had recovery missions where I’d go out to a site where guys got burnt so bad you could still smell their flesh — still charred, still burning and smoking when you get there,” he said. “You’d get out and be stepping on somebody’s private parts or you got an arm over here. … It was a regular occurrence.”

Such experiences left Cherry to this day with characteristic symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder — anxiety, depression, irritability, feelings of isolation, intrusive memories of traumatic moments in war, and difficulty sleeping.

“It takes me at least a couple hours to go to sleep, and then when I do go to sleep I [sleep] maybe about an hour, maybe two hours at the most, and then I wake back up for the rest of the night. It’s been like this over two years,” recounted Cherry. He said he thinks about what he witnessed in Iraq constantly, with graphic war memories triggered by news reports or even the sight of fellow soldiers’ uniforms, which now make him “sick to the stomach” to see.

But instead of receiving Army mental health counseling for these symptoms when he returned to Fort Drum, N.Y., from Iraq in June 2005, Cherry said he found the military unresponsive to his mental health care needs.

“The whole mental health system in the Army, and I would say especially here on Fort Drum, is a bunch of trash,” he said. “It doesn’t really address your real issues. The only thing they do is just load you up on medication and hope the problem goes away. … The entire system’s designed for the Army, not for the well being of the soldier.”

Now, nearly two years later, Cherry is being court-martialed and faces up to a year in prison for being absent without leave when he returned to his mother’s home in Chicago to find treatment.

“Eugene’s AWOL is related to the fact that he wasn’t getting care on the base,” said Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, a national GI rights group providing legal advice to Cherry. “But this is treated by the military as irrelevant and all they seem to concern themselves with is treating Eugene as a criminal and focusing on his so-called criminal acts.” Ensign said the punitive rather than medical approach towards Cherry is being pursued to discourage other soldiers from desertion at a time when military manpower is already being pushed to its limits with stop loss orders and extensions.

“Eugene needs treatment, not incarceration,” said Hannah Frisch, a clinical psychologist of 37 years with specialization in posttraumatic stress disorder. Frisch saw Cherry after he left Fort Drum on unauthorized leave in the fall of 2005. In papers Frisch presented to commanders at Fort Drum on May 14, two weeks after his court-martial was announced, she explained that based on clinical sessions with Cherry from April to August 2006, it was her professional opinion that he was suffering from posttraumatic stress and depression caused by his war experiences and that he was in need of counseling.

Cherry is not alone. A Pentagon survey released in May found that one-third of soldiers and Marines in high levels of combat in Iraq report depression, generalized anxiety or posttraumatic stress.

These returning soldiers’ needs are going unmet by underfunded and understaffed mental health care departments within both the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs health care systems, other government and media reports indicate.

In documents released in April to USA Today by the VA, 114 of 209 Vet Centers, sites designed to make it easier for combat vets to receive health care assistance, reported that they need at least one extra psychologist or therapist to handle the volume of returning soldiers in need of psychological care. This follows a report from the Government Accountability Office last year showing that only 1 percent of servicemen and women returning from Iraq get referred for mental health evaluations for posttraumatic stress disorder by the military, despite symptoms being present among 13 percent of returning service personnel, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study. Many of those returning reported an interest in receiving help.

In Cherry’s case, counseling proved to be elusive upon return from Iraq as a result of a combination of restrictive base regulations and Fort Drum’s understaffed mental health care team, tasked with care for returning soldiers from one of the most deployed combat divisions in the country.

By his own account, Cherry sought mental health counseling on base after returning to Fort Drum in June 2005, but he was not given an appointment until August. Cherry and other soldiers interviewed characterized the “overloaded” mental health counseling staff as having little time to devote to soldiers’ mental health needs in cases where suicide and homicide are not a risk. Cherry’s August appointment was rescheduled because the battalion commander issued a prohibition on appointments made during physical training time, which caused Cherry’s first appointment to be pushed back to mid-September.

Feeling neglected and “totally tired of the system,” and with his posttraumatic stress and depression symptoms worsening, Cherry decided to return to his family in Chicago, where he eventually obtained counseling with Frisch, following a referral from an area Vietnam veteran, he said.

Cherry’s case is under congressional investigation initiated by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Not until superiors at Drum became aware of the investigation did they offer Cherry any mental health services following his voluntary return to Fort Drum this February, Cherry said, even though his symptoms have persisted. The treatment has primarily consisted of antidepressant and sleep medication, which Cherry said has done nothing for him.

“It is possible that medication might be helpful as an adjunct, but a person in Eugene’s situation really needs really intensive psychotherapy,” recommended Frisch.

Representatives from Fort Drum were unable to comment in time for the publication of this story, though in interviews, other soldiers on the base agreed with the characterization of the mental health care department as understaffed and overloaded.

That Fort Drum’s mental health care system is overtaxed is common knowledge among local civilian mental health specialists, according to Holly Armstrong, a human services professor who works at the SUNY campus outside Fort Drum and with the North Country Council of Social Agencies, which serves the mental health needs of an area heavily populated with military families and veterans. “They have very good personnel [at Fort Drum] but there are just too many people that need [care],” Armstrong said.

“That overdraft comes in the community,” she said. This has exhausted civilian mental health resources in the area as well, she said, forcing returning soldiers wanting care to take 70-mile trips to Syracuse, N.Y., to seek help.

Armstrong said she is worried about what will happen this summer when more than 6,000 soldiers from two combat brigades return to Fort Drum.

“There aren’t enough [mental health care resources] in the military and there aren’t enough in the non-military,” she warned.

But there are, apparently, enough resources to prosecute Cherry. After two months of uncertainty about his status following his return from the year-plus absence, Cherry learned at the end of April that the Army was initiating court-martial proceedings against him for going AWOL.

If he is found guilty, Cherry may get prison time as well as a bad conduct discharge that will make him ineligible to receive most medical services for veterans.

miliano Huet-Vaughn is a Kansas City, Kan., freelance writer.

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