Denial in the Corps
When the fourth Army Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT IV) traveled to Iraq in 2006 to assess the mental health of soldiers and marines in theater, they noted the intensely "personal" nature of duty there--that is, the high percentage of soldiers and marines who knew someone seriously wounded or killed and could describe an event that had caused them "intense fear, helplessness or horror": seeing a friend liquefied in a tank, being attacked by IEDs, being caught in the open under sniper fire, "seeing, smelling, touching...dead people." Last June the Pentagon's Mental Health Task Force reported that 31 percent of the marines who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are suffering from traumatic stress, and Marine Corps suicide rates have been above average since the United States invaded Afghanistan. In 2004 the Corps reported thirty-two active-duty suicides, six of them from Camp Pendleton.
Marines have not only been heavily deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom; they've been sent into some of Iraq's most volatile areas, and they suffer 25 percent of the casualties, though they make up only 16 percent of ground forces there. "It has long been recognized that mental health breakdown occurs after prolonged combat exposure, a considerable number of Soldiers and Marines are conducting combat operations everyday of the week, 10-12 hours per day...for months on end," the MHAT IV report explains. "At no time in our military history have Soldiers or Marines been required to serve on the front line in any war for a period of 6-7 months, let alone [a] year, without a significant break in order to recover from the physical, psychological, and emotional demands that ensue from combat."
Their deployments generally run seven months, though last year 4,000 marines had their tours extended. Once home, they are given up to thirty days of leave to reconnect with their families, though many cannot even adjust to sleeping in a bed. Then they are back in training for their next deployment. The average break between tours is only six months. According to a mental health counselor at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California, who requested anonymity, marines suffering from combat trauma often decide not to seek counseling because they simply don't have time. Moreover, they tell the counselor, since they'll just be sent back into combat, what's the point? "In some way it is miraculous if someone doesn't have PTSD with these repeated tours," says Judith Broder, the psychiatrist. She founded The Soldiers Project, which provides free psychological services to Iraq and Afghanistan vets and their families, including, currently, several active-duty marines. "There's this heartbreaking sense these guys express of, 'I don't know who I am or what I did over there, and I have to hold myself together because I'm going to have to do it again, so don't try to pull me back into something soft and sweet. This is not going to do me good.'"
"Maybe we have to recognize that after a deployment or two, you're not able to deploy anymore because the stresses on the mind are just too great," says Maj. Haytham Faraj, the lead defense counsel at Camp Pendleton. The case that made Faraj "the angriest I've ever been at the Marine Corps" involved a 19-year-old who was severely wounded by a rocket attack during his first tour in Iraq.
The marine's wounds left him unable to control his bowels, and he lost sexual function. After being treated at several military hospitals, he was sent home to his parents on convalescent leave. His military counsel, former Marine Capt. Melissa Epstein Mills, now in private practice, says that during those months, the teen was "falling into the depths of depression dealing with these truly traumatic injuries and the death of his best friend, who died shortly after he was hit. [Then] his wife served him with divorce papers while he was in the hospital. His parents described it as a downward spiral."
When they found themselves unable to help their son, his parents asked his command at Pendleton to come get him. The 19-year-old confessed to his company commander that he had been smoking pot while convalescing.
"He had been on some pretty heavy painkillers and was being transitioned off," Epstein Mills explains, "but it was [also] a coping mechanism." The young man's regimental commander recommended him for an other-than-honorable discharge for drug use, which, Epstein Mills says, would likely have meant denial of his veterans' benefits--including mental healthcare--for the rest of his life.
"What a lot of people miss is that, in general, it's totally up to the commander what happens to their troop," says Scheirman. "They can send him to the hospital and say, 'Hey, this guy isn't able to do his work. Would you look at him for PTSD?' Or they can just kick the guy out." A medical discharge, which is generally under honorable conditions, can take many months, sometimes longer, and all the while the commander is stuck with an undeployable marine. An administrative separation usually takes a few weeks, at most. "If you kick the guy out, you'll get somebody to replace him," she says. "So that's the incentive for the commanders."
Epstein Mills and the 19-year-old's Marine Corps lawyer won him a general discharge under honorable conditions. Unlike an honorable discharge, it will not qualify him for educational benefits from the GI Bill, but he'll probably get some medical benefits.