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Denial in the Corps | The Nation

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Denial in the Corps

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According to civilian and military defense lawyers, mental health professionals and veterans' advocates, the trajectory of James Jenkins's postdeployment life, with untreated PTSD leading to misconduct and then punishment, is all too common in the Marine Corps. A marine endures one, two, even three tours in Iraq, serves honorably and well, but returns suffering from combat trauma and starts to drink or abuse drugs or becomes violent at home, and suddenly finds himself ostracized, punished and drummed out of the Corps with an other-than-honorable or bad-conduct discharge. A history of service is tarnished, and the marine is denied benefits--even the treatment necessary to recover from combat trauma--and left with only a bitter sense of betrayal. A Corps review in 2007 of 1,019 other-than-honorable discharges issued to combat veterans during the first four years of the Iraq War found that fully a third of the discharged marines had evidence of PTSD or another combat-related mental illness. Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, the Marine Corps's legal defense counsel for the western United States, estimates that of all the Iraq combat veterans his office defends, one-third have PTSD or another combat-stress mental health issue. Many of these clients have served at least two tours in Iraq.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

About the Author

Kathy Dobie
Kathy Dobie, who writes for GQ and Harper's, is the author of the memoir The Only Girl in the Car.

The factors leading to the abandonment of combat-broken marines are both cultural and operational. The Marine Corps is the youngest, most male, most junior and least married of all the services. Sixty-six percent of the troops are 25 or younger; 13 percent are teens; and 39 percent hold the rank of private, private first class or lance corporal. Fewer than 7 percent are female. The Corps's deeply macho culture, which values stoicism in the face of pain and disdains "weakness," makes it hard for marines to seek help. Judith Broder, a civilian psychiatrist who treats Iraq and Afghanistan vets, says, "They all know of stories where buddies have asked for help and have been ridiculed by the chain of command or given some kind of treatment that is not really adequate and told they have to go back."

This harsh culture is exacerbated by the relentless tempo of training and deployment, which pressures commanders to quickly replace broken marines with deployable ones. "You read the Marine Corps values and you'll find that anybody that gets hurt isn't courageous or doesn't have honor," Judith Litzenberger, a civilian defense lawyer and twenty-one-year Navy veteran, explains. "That's how the marines interpret it: 'I went to Iraq and I didn't whine and I didn't claim that I had a mental disorder, and damn well marines don't do that--we suck it up.' And it has to be that way because they have a mission that's bigger than the number of people they have. They can't spend all their time taking care of people who have mental disorders. They've got to wash them out quickly and move on."

The Corps also places more emphasis on discipline than any other branch of the military. According to USA Today, the Corps prosecutes close to the same number of troops for misconduct as the Army does, though it is one-third the size. "I don't think the legal system is being used improperly according to regulations," Lieutenant Colonel Vokey says. "The problem is I don't think the system accounts for these folks with PTSD. There's got to be another way to handle this without lumping them in with every other marine who commits misconduct. They were fine when they went to Iraq, we broke them, this is what combat did to them, and I think we should feel some responsibility for what happens to them."

Add to these factors the political and financial pressures surrounding the Iraq War, which have resulted in a mental health system so underfunded that last year a Pentagon Mental Health Task Force termed its staffing "woefully inadequate." The Navy, which provides psychological healthcare to the Marines, has filled only 72 percent of its psychologist billets and 62 percent of its psychiatrist billets.

"The funding has just been awful, the worst I've ever seen in my twenty years in the military," says Dr. Katherine Scheirman, a retired Air Force colonel who served as chief of medical operations in the Air Force's Europe headquarters from July 2004 to September 2006. Scheirman says the current political environment has made it "impossible" to give wounded soldiers proper care. "It's all about money," she says. "Every kid that gets kicked out with PTSD is gonna be a lifetime of disability payments for the government. Every kid who gives up and kills himself, nothing." Scheirman's unit was in charge of evacuating the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan and transporting them to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and on to the United States. She says politics infused every aspect of care. When she tried to beef up the hospital staff at Landstuhl, she was told, "No, we can't put more doctors or nurses in there because it will look like we expect more casualties." She was not allowed to send the visibly wounded home on commercial planes. "The rule," she says, "was they couldn't fly commercial if they had injuries that showed because it would upset the American people." The military planes were so cold the Air Force ended up running clothing drives for hats, scarves and mittens--a situation that continues today. In one e-mail requesting donations, a lieutenant colonel wrote, "Mittens are preferred because they often fit better over wounded hands/fingers."

"What kind of Army doesn't provide mittens for its wounded soldiers?" Scheirman asks. "What's sad is this isn't the way it's ever been before. I came into the military under Reagan, and George Bush's dad--they treated people well. The Clintons treated people really, really well. It's only this Administration that acts like the lives of these soldiers are expendable."

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