Returning Soldiers' Mental Health Neglected

Article excerpt

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. …