Denial in the Corps
It began during his second deployment to Iraq, when Uloth and members of his unit manning a vehicle checkpoint fired on a car speeding toward them. "When they went to see what they'd gotten, in the car were a father and three young kids," Faraj says. "That troubled him so much that he began to have nightmares, and that's when the PTSD set in." Two weeks before his tour ended, an explosive-filled truck detonated at another checkpoint, where Uloth saw two of his marines die. Under heavy fire, he retrieved the decapitated head and body of his best friend. Then he held the hand of a dying 19-year-old marine and told him he was going to be OK.
Once Uloth's unit returned to Pendleton, he began to suffer from PTSD, depression and "conversion disorder," characterized by flashback-related seizures. Each time he tried to see the unit psychiatrist, he was given an appointment weeks away--a typical wait, according to Faraj. Uloth decided to go home to New Orleans, where he checked himself into the psychiatric ward at a nearby Air Force hospital. After forty-five days, the Marines sent chasers to pick him up. Back at Pendleton, he was charged with unauthorized absence (UA) and thrown into the brig.
There, Uloth was put in isolation, stripped to his underwear for up to twenty-four hours a day and was so heavily medicated he felt like a "zombie." Once a month he was taken in handcuffs and leg shackles to see a psychiatrist. Faraj wanted to go to trial, sure that they could beat the charges. But after two months in the brig, Uloth told him, "I can't take it anymore. You got to get me out." Faraj's plea agreement included a reduction in rank to corporal and a general discharge under honorable conditions.
While Uloth waited for his discharge to come through, he was transferred to a new unit. When a marine faces misconduct proceedings, he is often transferred from his parent company to a headquarters unit. The people he served with in Iraq were busy training for redeployment or were back overseas, and the rear command knew him only as a marine charged with substance abuse or UA, another one of "the broke, lame and lazy." In the new unit, Uloth, an experienced sergeant, was subject to daily ridicule and assigned to pick up trash.
Uloth told Faraj he couldn't take it. Faraj told him to hang in there, but a few days later, Faraj got a call from the unit's first sergeant, asking if he knew where Uloth was. Six months after that, Uloth was picked up again in New Orleans, this time on a DUI, and thrown back into the Pendleton brig.
The previous terms of his discharge were voided, but Uloth told Faraj, "Any way you can get me out, I just want out." Uloth was separated with an other-than-honorable discharge, with all direct medical benefits denied him, his history of faithful service erased.
Now Uloth cannot afford medication to control his seizures, so he just "wings it" and has ended up in various emergency rooms. He uses alcohol to put himself to sleep. Recently, several of the marines who served with him in Iraq tracked him down. "We all served in combat together and all of them have the same problems," Uloth says. "They've all been diagnosed with PTSD, their lives are upside down, a lot of them have tried committing suicide, a lot of them are alcoholics, they can't keep a marriage or a relationship, everybody's lives are shitholes."
The Marine Corps has always taken pride in caring for its own, but its efforts to take care of mentally wounded marines have overwhelmingly failed, plagued by denial, machismo, an unrealistic war tempo and a severe shortage of resources. In the spring of 2007 the Corps set up the Wounded Warrior Regiment, where marines suffering from physical and mental injuries could be tracked and supported. "I spoke with the guy at Quantico who was going to be running this warrior regiment," says Steve Robinson, a Gulf War veteran and veterans' advocate. "And one of the first things he said that made me sit up in my chair was, 'Look, we don't want to diagnose marines with PTSD. We need them to get back into the fight. Call it something else, whatever you want to call it, and then we try to retrain them.'"
Robinson told him, "Well, that's great, but the DSM-IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] clearly states that if they have these signs and symptoms, they should be diagnosed."
When members of President Bush's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors visited Pendleton last spring, they spoke with a group of marines housed in the wounded warrior barracks who said they felt they were being punished for being wounded. The marines pointed to the sterile living environment, rigid rules banning rest in their rooms during the day and menial tasks assigned to those well enough to work. In his report to the President's commission, Lt. Col. Leslie Chip Pierce said visitors from the commission "were taken to a location in the barracks known to these wounded warriors as the petting zoo." At the camp's Behavioral Health Clinic, the staff expressed "frustration" too, saying, according to the report, that "line commanders are not always committed to PTSD identification and treatment once they have returned to home base."
After the Marine Corps conducted its review of less-than-honorable discharges, Navy Capt. William Nash, who coordinates the Marines' combat stress program, recommended, according to USA Today, that "any marine or sailor who commits particularly uncharacteristic misconduct following deployment...be aggressively screened for stress disorders and treated." Almost a year later, the Navy and Marine Corps have yet to implement these screenings. They simply don't have the manpower.