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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

IRAQ: MENTALLY UNFIT, FORCED TO FIGHT---PART III.......................................


SLIPPING THROUGH THE SYSTEM

A Courant Investigation has found that less than 1% of deploying troops receive an evaluation from a mental health professional, even though the military admits that more than 9% have a serious psychological illness.


In the 17 months after their son, Eddie, announced he was heading off to fight the war on terror, Margaret and Edward Brabazon of Bensalem, Pa., had held their breath.

They were accustomed to holding their breath with the boy they had taken in as a foster child at age 3 and adopted at 12---the boy who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention-deficit disorder by the time he was 10, and who had spent his early teenage years in a psychiatric hospital and group homes for the emotionally disturbed.

Thy watched with bewildered pride as the young man they had affectionately nicknamed "Crazy Eddie" was handed a uniform and a M-4 rifle and accepted into an elite fraternity---the 505th Parachute Infrantry Regiment based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Although Margaret protested, the 18-year-old soldier also had informed his parents that he had stopped taking his psychotropic medications because he "wanted to be like everyone else," Margaret recalled.

"We were surprised they took him, with the kind of mental problems he had, but we figured the Army must know what they are doing," Margaret said. "We didn't think they'd send him into combat."

Today, the Brabazons regret those assumptions.

On March 9, 2004, less than three months into his second deployment to the Middle East, Spec. Edward W. Brabazon shot himself in the head with his rifle at a palace compound in Baghdad, the Army has concluded. He was 20.

The Brabazons say they have trouble making sense of the Army's investigation into his death, which notes his psychiatric past.

"They talked about how he had a history of mental problems," Margaret said. "I said, 'No kidding. If you knew he had mental problems, then why was he there?'"

Eddie Brabazon was there because the U.S. military has knowingly sent mentally ill troops to Iraq---in conflict with its own regulations---and turned a blind eye to the mental fitness of thousands of other service members, a Courant investigation has found.

Despite a congressional mandate to assess the mental health of every soldier sent to a combat zone, interviews and Defense Department records obtained by The Courant reveal a fractured pre-deployment screening process in which less than 1% of deploying soldiers ever see a mental health professional. It is a practice that has put unfit service members in harm's way, increasing the risk for suicide and post-traumtic stress disorder.

The military's own studies suggest that as many as one in 11 troops is suffering from a major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder or PTSD that subtantially impairs their ability to function at the time they are deployed to war. But military screeners have arranged mental health evluations for fewer than 1 in 300 deploying troops, according to a Courant analysis of screening data for more than 930,000 troops processed from March 2003 through October 2005.

And some troops have been sent to war in violation of military regulations, which bar the deployment of troops with mental disorders that can interfere with their duties.

In addition, despite the military's promises to pay closer attention to the mental health of service members following a spate of suicides in 2003, the data indicate that the soldiers who report psychological issues are more likely to be deployed now than at the start of the war.

Overall, soldiers who screened positive for mental health problems were deemed fit for war 85% of the time, according to the data. Those deployment decisions were made with more than 93% of troops who screened positive never receiving a referral for a mental health evaluation.

With the military scrambling to find enough combat troops, some soldier advocates say the reason for the inadequate mental health screening is evident.

"Command pressure to deploy their people has kind of swept away any efforts that might have been made to improve screening," said Kathleen Gilbred, who counsels service members in San Diego and serves as co-chairwoman of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild.

For some, that pressure has proved fatal. The Courant's analysis of confirmed and likely suicides cases among U.S. troops in 2005 shows that at least 7, or about one-third, of the soldiers who killed themselves in Iraq did so within 3 months of being deemed mentally fit and sent into combat. Suicide experts say the vast majority of those who take their own lives are suffering from depression or bipolar disorder at the time, and say it is doubtful soldiers would spontaneously develop a serious mental illness so quickly after their deployment.

The pre-deployment screening misses so many troubled troops in part because it relies entirely on self-reporting in the form of a single question on a written form that asks service members whether they have received mental health care in the past year---a disclosure the military kn0ws its members are unlikely to make.

The reluctance is borne out by Defense Department records obtained by The Courant. In the first 32 months of war, just 3% of deploying troops disclosed that they had sought care or counseling for their mental health in the past year. The small percentage captured through self-reporting is far lower than the more than 20% of deploying troops who were found to have mental disorders---9.3% of them considered serious---in a 2004 study by military doctors.

The 3% figure "sounds like a ridiculously low number," said Paul Rieckhoff, a former platoon leader in Iraq and executive director of Iraq and Afghanastan Veterans of America.

And when troops don't disclose, the military doesn't dig deeper.

Defense Department records show that those who conceal past mental health care are almost never questioned about their mental fitness. Since the war began, service members who checked the 'no' box on the mental health question had less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of being referred for a mental health evaluation.

But there are deeper flaws. While many soldiers with mental illness opt to stay in the shadows, others, like Army Staff Sgt. Nathan Bailey of Nashville, had made no secret of their psychiatric problems before the military handed them the guns they used to kill themselves.

Bailey took powerful anti-psychotic medication and most of the time, it was enough to keep him mentally even.

But not always.

In 2002, Bailey's sister and mother found him in a panicked sweat in his apartment, darting from place to place, telling his relatives that they were in danger, that they were being tracked through their cellphone signals. Doctors at a veterans hospital in Nasville eventually put him in a locked psychiatric ward for several days.

So a year later, When Bailey's unit was preparing to deploy in support of the Iraq war, his sister, Robbie Snapp, urged military leaders to leave him behind. But his commanders had other plans.

"The only thing they could tell him," Snapp said, `was that as long as you're on your medicine, you'll be OK.'"

He wasn't.

Seven months into his tour, military records show, Bailey placed the muzzle of his rifle under his chin, stretched one hand over the barrel of the weapon, and squeezed the trigger.

A military investigation into Bailey's death confirmed his long history of mental illness, and revealed the Army was aware that Bailey had attempted suicide once before, Snapp said.

"If that really happened," Snapp wonders, 'then why would you sent someone to war that has tried something like this?'"


DISQUALIFYING DISORDERS

Bailey, Brabazon and other mentally ill soldiers were sent to war despite Army regulations designed to keep troubled service members away from the front lines.

The military has acknowledged that certain mental disorders are not compatible with service, and recruiting standards for all of the armed forces identify a number of disqualifying disorders, including a history of suicidal behavior, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as current treatment for bipolar disorder or major depression. The standards for deployment to combat zones are even broader, barring soldiers with "any disorder that has the potential to prevent performance of duty, even controlled by medication."

That leaves Patricia Powers of Skiatook, Okla., at a loss to explain how her 20-year-old son, Joshua, was on his way to Iraq barely six months after he enlisted with the Army.

"He did have Asperger's, which is a form of autism, and I just couldn't beleive that the Army took him in. I just couldn't beleive that," Powers said.

People with Asperger syndrome tend to be highly intelligent, but have trouble processing social cues, and are often, as Joshua was, quiet loners who have difficulty building relationships.

But Asperger's wasn't Joshua's only neurological issue. Powers said she read through the medical records of her son's frequent visit to a base doctor, "every one mentioned something about severe depression. Everytime he went in, they marked that."

Less than twow eeks after arriving in Iraq, Joshua helped find a large cache of weapons, and his mother said he sounded proud and happy in a telephone call.

But a week later---on Feb. 24 of this year---Pvt. Joshua Powers left his barracks after midnight and walked toward the latrine. When fellow soldiers found him, he was dead of a gunshot wound to the head.

At a war service memorial in Iraq, Joshua's commander, Capt. Vaughn D. Strong, Jr., told his troops that Joshua's death was a reminder of the importance of looking after each other.

"We must look for the indiators and signs of struggle within our ranks," Strong said, "so we can be there to help our comrades fight through their tough times...so that we can all make it home alive and safe."

Patricia Powers fears her son was a victim of a severely strained Army fighting an unpopular war.

"They have an issue with trying to get people to sign up and join," she said. "And I think in that case, they're going to take whoever they can get, and they're going to keep them if they can."

Since the war began, the military has repeatedly lowered its recruitment standards---or granted waivers of those standards---in the areas of obesity, education and criminal background. With pressure on recruiters to meet monthly goals, military advocates say screening for troops going to war is especially important as a safeguard against recruiting lapses.

In Bensalem, Pa., Eddie Brabazon was eager to sign up, so on his 18th birthday, he left the group home where he was living and headed straight for a recruiting office.

It wasn't a surprise to his parents---Eddie had always pretended to be GI Joe---but they weren't sure he had the emotional well-being to survive in the military.

From the time Eddie became their foster child at 3, the Brabazons worked to control his hyperactivity and deal with his short attention span.

By age 5, Eddie would fly into a rage each day at precisely 4 p.m.---an outburst that can only be contolled by a ritual in which Margaret would lift him up and plant him on top of the refrigerator, where he would calmly talk about what was bothering him.

In kindergarten, Margaret recalls, "They were glad when he didn't come to school, when he was sick or something."

By sixth grade, he was attending an alternative school, where he was an average student, the Brabazons said. Despite his strong build, he never excelled into athletics; in team sports, coaches would often find Eddie zoned out in the field, unable to concentrate on the game at hand.

Over the years, Eddie had taken lithium for bipolar disorder, the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa and other pshchotropic drugs. But shortly after graduating from an alternative school for students needing education and emotional support, he headed to Fort Bragg for basic trining.

In Afghanastan and Iraq, Brabazon had gotten in trouble for mouthing off at superiors, and two weeks before his death, he was punished again after his weapon accidentally discharged.

While assigned to clean trash out of a Humvee, he told a sergeant how much he hated messing up. "When I let you down, I feel like going to a Porta-john and blowing my...brains out," Brabazon said, according to a military investigative report.

The sergeant told investigators he talked to Brabazon for two hours until he was satisfied he was not going to kill himslef.

Days later, the same sergeant became concerned that Brabazon was suicidal when he took his rifle with him to the portable toilets and stayed there for 45 minutes.

"No, sergeant, it's not like that. "It's not like that," Brabazon told the sergeant, explaining that he just needed a peaceful place to think.

But on March 9, 2004, after returning from a night mission, Brabazon made a disparaging remark about a superior officer and was told that he---and his entire platoon---would be punished as a result.

Ninety minutes later, in the pre-dawn darkness, Brabazon's roommates heard a powerfulblast. Turning on the lights, they found Brabazon face down on the floor, lying on top of his rifle, a gunshot wound running from below his left jaw out the top of his skull.

The Brabazons find it hard to beleive that Eddie would kill himself. But they equally perplexed thta the Army would send him to Iraq at all.

"Didn't they look at his records?" Margaret Brabazon asks. "I mean, if you're flat-ffoted, you don't go in. So isn't there a clause in there if you had mental problems?"

The family of Army Spec. Michael S. Deem also questions the Army's decision to send the 35-year-old father of two to war.

When Deem transferred from Texas to Fort Stewart in Georgia in 2004 to be closer to his 7-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, he knew he was transferring to a unit that was facing deployment to Iraq, his wife, Lynn Deem, said.

Deem accepted the consequences of his decision, but after his Georgia unit was called up, his lomgstanding depression and anxiety deepened, Lynn Deem said.

In the weeks before deploying, Deem saw a military psychiatrist to help him in handling his heightened stress, his wife said. She said the doctor gave him "multiple drugs," including "a year's supply of Prozac."

There was no decision of his not deploying.

"The way he portrayed it," she recalled, "it was not negotiable."

The year's supply of antidepressants would be wasted. Less than a montha fter arriving in Iraq, Deem, an information systems operator in the SPecial Troops Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division, was found dead in his bunk at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.

The Armt determined that he died of an enlarged heart "complicated by elevated levels" of Prozac---the very drug that was supposed to help him through his tour.

Saying the Prozac alone did not kill him and that there was no indication of suicide, the Army has classified Deem's cause of death as "natural." But months after the military has closed its investigation, Deem's family still wrestles with questions.

"To know that he's got a history of anxiety and depression and to load him up on pills and send him to a war zone---how could they do that?" asks his aunt, Mary Ann Warner, of Lakeland, Fla.

"Michael is someone who was sent with them knowing he had some mental health issues," said Lynn Deem. "There's no way they can say they didn't know."

Patricia Powers said she is now left with searing grief, and gnawin questions about how and why her son died. She's heard talk of a sniper targeting Joshua's base camp. But there are also indications that Joshua was having trouble coping soon after he arrived in the war zone.

*This is the end of PART III. Watch for PART IV.

Source: The Hartford Courant
By: Matthew Kauffman and Lisa Chedekel
May 15, 2006

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