[News] Soldier Suicides

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 6 11:27:01 EST 2009


Weekend Edition
March 6-8 , 2009

Tragedy Strikes at Home

Soldier Suicides


In the early morning hours of October 20, 2008, Pfc. Timothy Alderman 
took his own life in his barracks at Fort Carson, Colo. He died of an 
apparent prescription drug overdose.

The 21-year-old had been stationed in the Iraqi city of Ramadi. 
Before his long deployment to the Middle East, he had never suffered 
from any mental health problems. In fact, according to his medical 
records, he didn't think he would have difficulty returning home 
because he "mostly had fun killing people and getting paid for it."

But like hundreds of thousands of other veterans who served in Iraq 
or Afghanistan, Alderman left the battlefield, but the battlefield 
didn't leave him.

He began struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder 
(PTSD), the medical condition that has become the signature wound of 
the U.S. "war on terror."

According to an investigative series by Salon.com's Mark Benjamin and 
Michael de Yoanna [1], Alderman sought help from his chain of command 
upon his return, but was met with demeaning comments from his company 
sergeants, such as, "I wish you would just go ahead and kill 
yourself. It would save us a lot of paperwork."

On October 13, only a week prior to his suicide, Alderman joined a 
small group of soldiers in writing sworn statements about their 
experiences in Iraq. In his statement, he describes dealing with 
repeated nightmares about a February 2007 combat experience in which 
he pulled the dismembered corpse of a fellow soldier from a vehicle 
that had been hit by a roadside bomb.

"I am seeking help, but I feel like I'm not being treated right," 
wrote Alderman in the statement. "I mean mental help. I struggle 
every day with it."

Though the Army has ruled his death a suicide, there is another 
possibility: Alderman may have died as a result of a lethal 
interaction of the many powerful drugs prescribed to him by Army 
medical personnel because of his mental condition. According to 
Benjamin and de Yoanna:

On discharge, records show, doctors had Alderman on 0.5 mg of 
Klonopin for anxiety, three times a day; 800 mg of Neurotin, an 
anti-seizure medication, three times a day; 100 mg of Ultram, a 
narcotic-like pain reliever, three times a day; 20 mg of Geodon at 
Noon and then another 80 mg at night, as a treatment for bipolar 
disorder; 0.1 mg of Clonodine, a blood pressure medication also used 
for withdrawal symptoms, three times a day; 60 mg of Remeron, for 
depression, once a day; and 10 mg of Prozac twice a day.

Alderman is also reported to have taken Xanax and morphine.

Though the Army is quick to dismiss his death as yet another tragic 
case of suicide, evidence suggests that there was negligence by his 
caregivers in identifying and treating his symptoms properly.

In fact, Benjamin and de Yoanna contacted an Army psychiatrist to ask 
about the list of drugs and dosages Alderman was taking. "Oh God," 
the psychiatrist replied. "That's shitty. That breaks all the rules. 
He was overmedicated. That's bad medicine."

As evidence for declaring Alderman's death a suicide, the Army points 
to a letter that Alderman pinned to his wall, addressing his deceased 
mother. But according to Alderman's military friends, the letter 
didn't read like a suicide note.

Regardless of whether it was a suicide or accidental death, one 
conclusion is inescapable: the military could have done much more to 
ensure that Alderman was taken care of when he returned home.

Alderman's former roommate puts responsibility for Alderman's death 
squarely on the military. "I know he didn't commit suicide," he told 
Benjamin and de Yoanna. "I don't think he should have been released 
from the hospital. I know for a fact the Army killed my friend. I 
want something done. The Army is killing people left and right, and 
nobody cares."

* * *

ALDERMAN WENT on some 250 combat missions in Iraq and had 16 
confirmed kills, according to members of his unit. Now, he is one of 
128 soldiers who committed suicide in 2008. According to the Army's 
own statistics, this is the highest suicide rate for soldiers in three decades.

There are several barriers that veterans like Alderman face when 
seeking help for combat-related mental health disorders.

First, there's the stigma. Even when the symptoms of trauma are 
crystal clear, a soldier who acknowledges such an issue must confront 
the conflict between seeking help and the constant pressure within 
the military to send soldiers to the battlefield. Already, many 
soldiers have been sent on multiple deployments, and especially in 
the macho culture of the military, mental health issues generally 
aren't considered serious enough to warrant real attention.

Then, there are worries about admitting to a mental health disorder 
because it might affect a future promotion.

There has also been widespread negligence by the military in 
providing adequate health care, especially mental health care, for 
soldiers. Whether it is failing to recognize and treat PTSD, or 
overmedicating soldiers who suffer from stress or injuries, the 
trauma associated with war has created a crisis for veterans who are 
not receiving proper care when they return home.

The Veterans Administration, which deals with health care for 
veterans when they are discharged from the military, has not been any 
less negligent than the military when it comes to dealing with 
suicides and treatment for trauma.

Both the military and VA have failed to put adequate resources into 
addressing the huge needs that active-duty personnel and veterans 
have as the U.S. enters the eighth year of its "war on terror."

As one example, some 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 
one in five, suffer from major depression or PTSD upon returning 
home, but only about half of them seek treatment--at least in part 
due to the long wait times for appointments with doctors and other therapies.

According to a CBS News report last April, the head of mental health 
for the VA, Ira Katz, said the following in an internal VA email 
regarding suicide attempts by veterans:

Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 
suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical 
facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves 
in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?

Speaking on the record in November 2007, however, Katz told CBS News, 
"There is no epidemic in suicide in the VA." But if 1,000 veterans a 
month attempting suicide is not an epidemic, then what is?

Katz's duplicity is chilling--not only for the veterans who are 
already enrolled in the VA, but also for soldiers who are being 
ordered to Iraq and Afghanistan today, and are likely to return home 
to a mental health system even more overburdened than it is currently.

* * *

IN OCTOBER 2006, Spc. Zach Choate, who served as a scout with the 
Army's 10th Mountain Division in southern Baghdad, was riding in his 
vehicle on a combat patrol when a roadside bomb detonated, ejecting 
him from the gunner's turret. After returning to the U.S. for 
treatment, he was awarded the Purple Heart. He was also diagnosed with PTSD.

After receiving his military discharge, he waited seven months for 
his disability claim to go through. This was after waiting more than 
a year to get his medical records back from the military. He now 
regularly receives treatment at the VA Hospital in Atlanta where he 
says his problems with PTSD are not being adequately addressed.

"The only questions my doctor asks me to identify how I am doing with 
PTSD is whether I am suicidal and how I am medicating," he said in an 
interview. "It seems like she is not properly trained to deal with my issues."

For most veterans, the transition from military health care to the VA 
is already the hardest transition that they face. Along with the 
waiting time for a disability claim to be approved, there is also the 
trouble associated with injured veterans who did not serve two full 
years in the military. Without two years of service, a soldier is not 
eligible for VA care, no matter what their injury from combat may be.

This policy jeopardizes the well-being of veterans who are being sent 
to Iraq and Afghanistan immediately after finishing basic training.

With the Obama administration taking over in Washington, hopes are 
higher than ever that veterans will be taken care of when they come 
home. This is especially true after the glaring failures of the Bush 
administration, which even opposed improving education benefits for 
veterans because it feared that GIs might then leave the military in 
order to go to college.

But with the escalation of wars overseas and the economic crisis at 
home, the money needed to take care of veterans will not be allocated 
without veterans and civilians alike making this a central demand 
from the new administration. Putting force behind the demand "Money 
for jobs and education, not for war and occupation" is essential if 
veterans are to get the benefits they deserve.

Phil Aliff was deployed to Iraq with the Army's 10th Mountain 
Division and is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). In 
March 2007, he helped start IVAW's first active-duty chapter and 
became a dedicated antiwar activist.

This article originally appeared in the 
<http://www.socialistworker.org>Socialist Worker.

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