Has Anything Really Changed at Fort Sill?

When I first wrote my story “Malevolent Power at Fort Sill: The Army Slays Its Own“, which appeared in the CounterPunch newsletter in late March and here on the website a couple of weeks later, I had this notion that there was something scandalous about abuses of GIs by their own command in a program for injured soldiers on a US Army post. A 21-year-old soldier, PFC Matthew Scarano, had died in his bunk at Fort Sill, in Lawton, Oklahoma. A little over a year earlier he had badly injured his shoulder in the course of basic training there, and by March 19, when he died, he was no closer to healing but had spent months so doped up on painkillers that sometimes he could barely make it to formation. The latest drug prescribed for him by Army doctors, Fentanyl, is described in medical literature as an analgesic patch 80 times more potent than morphine. Earlier during his confinement in Fort Sill’s Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program (PTRP), Scarano reported in a letter home that “the Army has me on Ambien, seroquel, tylox and oxycontins. I also get trazadone to take the edge off.”

I imagined that death — on top of other soldiers’ allegations of torment, assault and a regimen of systematic humiliation and neglect — would be meat for the likes of Congressman John Murtha and for mainstream journalists carefully trying to balance their bosses’ fealty to power and their own desire for good copy. I personally handed the article to Murtha and sent it to every mainstream journalist I knew, suggesting they follow up on it. It was also sent to television and radio reporters. Some readers wrote telling me they’ve forwarded it to their Congressional representatives, urging an inquiry. CounterPuncher Greg Arnold of Danville, California, has written Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer every week for five weeks, getting a pro forma “thank you” from Boxer and not a word from Feinstein. Pat deVarennes, the injured soldier’s mother whose blog first alerted me to PTRP’s cruelties, had prophesied for months that something terribly bad could happen there and fought like hell to get anyone interested, but after Scarano’s death she told me, “The silence has been thunderous.”

It used to be that an American life counted for far more than any other, so the cynic might say this nonchalance is a sign of progress at a time when an American war has taken the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqis without too much discomfort in this country. “Heal and Ship” is the PTRP motto, after all; ship to kill or be killed, maybe both. The rough economy of war will shake out who is an asset and who a loss.

Naturally, the Army prefers assets, even broken ones like the soldiers in PTRP, to outright losses. It began an inquiry into Scarano’s death. And thanks to another CounterPuncher, who nudged my story toward Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times, silence from the big media has not been complete. On May 12 the Times published Blumenthal’s story (which credited CounterPunch for its early reporting) on the front page. No doubt, the Army hated Blumenthal’s prying, but its flack at Fort Sill did his best to make a young man’s suffering and death a case study of what the military loves to call “lessons learned”: something freakish, isolated, ultimately edifying, proof that the system works, the program works, the process of self-criticism and reform may grind slow but it grinds steady.

I hadn’t known, when I wrote my story, that Matthew Scarano is not the first soldier to have died in Fort Sill’s PTRP. In July of 2004, 22-year-old Pvt. Jason Poirier expired in the same barracks as a result of “acute methadone intoxication”, according to an Army autopsy. It was an accident, Army officials told Blumenthal, just like Scarano’s death, which has yet to be officially determined.

Poirier’s death didn’t count for much either, despite a supposed subsequent reform in how medications were dispensed, because it wasn’t enough to prevent Scarano’s. Blumenthal reported that Fort Sill’s flack told him soldiers weren’t monitored while taking medication when Scarano was alive, suggesting the soldier had OD’d, but back in March, Pvt. Richard Thurman, deVarennes’ son, told me that PTRP soldiers couldn’t take an aspirin on their own without risking being found out and punished. Thurman, who had stress fractures, said all medication was under the control of higher-ups, dispensed only at certain times by supervisors who watched while pills were swallowed. Like buying cigarettes or candy at the PX, buying Tylenol was trading in contraband. Across a year Scarano had been dosed with prescription drugs, the result of decisions taken by Fort Sill’s medical personnel. Those decisions may have been wrong; they weren’t accidental.

Indeed, nothing happens by accident at PTRP, not in the ordinary sense of that word. An environment of almost total control, it is defined by orders given or withheld. Pvt. Poirier’s death wasn’t enough to rouse Fort Sill’s commander to put a doctor or physical therapist in charge of the PTRP. It wasn’t enough to order adherence to the Army’s rule that no one may stay in PTRP, or at non-permanent party status, for longer than six months. It wasn’t enough to run the program the way anyone of common sense would envision a rehabilitation program running: with initial personalized medical consultations and consistent follow-up, personalized therapy regimens, classic Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation treatments and schedules organized around healing. It wasn’t enough to spare future inmates from forced labor, mind-numbing boredom, do-it-yourself gym workouts, regular infantilization, denigration and despair. And it wasn’t enough to keep a crazed drill sergeant from abusing them collectively and assaulting one of them physically.

Fort Sill’s flack told Blumenthal that an internal investigation has substantiated “misbehavior” on the part of Drill Sgt. Robert Langford. In January Langford kicked 21-year-old Pvt. Damien McMahon in his injured knee after the latter said he couldn’t genuflect. If a GI had kicked Langford, he’d be in the brig for assault. Langford was reassigned, and is now at home, under suspension. It is not clear if any disciplinary action has been taken against the first sergeant, Langford’s superior, who witnessed the assault and ordered the other troops to turn away as their comrade cried out in pain on the floor, then warned them all that they’d seen nothing. Another drill sergeant, Troy Bullock, who once caught a soldier sneaking a cigarette and decided to punish the whole unit, forcing the inmates to assemble in formation and change uniforms every hour between 10 pm and 2 am, has also been suspended.

So, yes, there were abuses, the flack conceded, but as they weren’t directed at Scarano per se, they had no bearing on the accident of his death. Scarano was on sleep medicine the night of Bullock’s exercise in sleep deprivation. He did worsen his injury by having to move heavy furniture and hand-scrape the barracks floor along with the other men under Langford’s order, but that didn’t kill him.

Now in the spirit of reform, Fort Sill officials say they will try their best to stick to the six-month rule they previously ignored, and the chain of command and the medical side will review soldiers’ cases on a regular schedule. A medical professional has been put in charge of the program (previously an artillery captain was), and yet another policy has been instituted for distributing medication. Shortly before Scarano’s death, as a result of deVarennes’ tireless challenges, a medical advocate was assigned to review cases and intervene on the soldiers’ behalf to get doctor’s appointments. The Pvt. 1st Class Scarano Fatality Review Board has thus done its job, and the command is proud, as its PR people wrote in a statement to the Lawton Constitution, that Fort Sill has a 75.7 percent success rate of returning soldiers to training following their injuries. That, they crowed, is “one of the best PTRP success rates within the Army’s five (Initial Entry Training) sites”.

Since writing that first story on Scarano and Fort Sill, I’ve heard from soldiers experienced with some of those other IET — that is, basic training — sites, the assumedly good ones whose PTRP units are not plagued by accidents and isolated incidents of abuse. Pat deVarennes has heard from even more. They deserve some airing.

“I would like to say that basic training is a bit like torture”, a fellow named Eric wrote me. “I went to basic training at Ft. Benning, GA, in 2000. Men WERE subjected to sleep deprivation, verbal abuse, and overexertion during training. The drill sergeants who ran the basic training program were the same ones who ran the PTRP or equivalent programs.”

The Army has since overhauled its basic training doctrine, officially chucking the old standard of “break them down to build them up,” but a soldier who’s been on medical hold-over status for about a year and a half at Fort Benning, wrote to say, “During my time here I have seen many abuses and I know many soldiers who have suffered the indignity of the hold-over or PTRP status. Among the uninjured, PTRP is known mostly as a warning, “a bad place” you don’t ever want to be in, where men languish cleaning the barracks, staring at walls, getting no rehab, being the butt of yelling, hazing, belittlement. “The PTRP is a problem of the system,” he said. “Once you’re out of the training regime, you kind of drop off the face of the earth.”

“There wasn’t a minute that went by when the Drill Sergeants didn’t make some type of verbal attack at [injured soldiers] or to the rest of us about them to make sure that they and we knew it”, an active duty soldier who’d trained at Fort Benning wrote to deVarennes. “With the exception of those that went AWOL, which as I learned when I had to go to the Infirmary happens with alarming frequency despite the warning that it’s an offense punishable by ‘death,’ those guys didn’t really deserve it. The stigma behind joining the group of ‘flunkies’ was such that a soldier in my platoon was so against being put in that group that he attempted to stay with us with a back problem so bad he could barely do anything at times. Not being recycled [forced to repeat training] is the only thing that keeps people from going to sick call sometimes no matter the pain.”

This soldier sent deVarennes a card that he received upon entering basic training enumerating his rights, including “To be free to go on sick call when necessary”, “To be treated fairly and with the respect which all men and women deserve” and “To undergo no punishment which is degrading or harmful.”

A man named John who spent nine weeks, a relatively short time, at Fort Knox’s PTRP in late 2004 said he witnessed two people openly threaten suicide and another go AWOL. “I’ll go a long period of time forgetting about that place”, he wrote me, “but then something small will remind me of things such as how the commanding officer threatened to shred medical files, how a drill sergeant cracked a private’s ribs by jumping on him as a joke, how crippled people got to spend their evenings washing government vehicles and staring at walls, and how I was relegated to doing one-armed pushups for an hour because someone fell asleep while we were assigned to stare at a wall all morning (my other arm was out of service due to a severe shoulder dislocation). Sadly, this was all a proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg.’ I wrote Senator Cornyn’s office about this matter and he surprisingly followed through with an inquiry. This was of no avail, however, as the chain of command took cheap shots and tried to call me a liar.”

From a soldier who’d been in the PTRP at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 2000, deVarennes got a letter saying, “What happened while I was in PTRP was not military, it was hate, nothing less than hate for us. While I was in we only had 2 books, our Army ‘smart book’ and our religious choice. No other reading was allowed. We were to read standing at the end of our bunks, we would go months without phone calls, we had to sneak body soap and writing paper from people who went to the hospital as the SGTs maybe took us to get stuff once a month. I have seen people forced to kneel on ACLs [torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries], forced to do ‘front back gos’ [an exercise involving the pushup position, the flutter-kick position and running in place] while they had stress fractures in their hips.”

While recycled for a second basic training, this soldier fell thirty feet. He has a torn rotator cuff and Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy with nerve damage, meaning he has chronic, searing pain. He is 32 now and says, “I am unable to do anything I did before the Army.” He separated from the Army as a model soldier, he says, and is now fighting it for trying to cut his disability benefit.

Officers at Fort Sill told soldiers’ families that PTRP is a “work in progress” when I was there in March. The program has been in place only since the 1990s, they joked, and given how long it takes the Army to do anything, such a time span is a mere bat of the eye. Thus it was that later I could square accounts of contemporary horrors at Fort Sill and a letter I received from a woman named Lisa, who was in the Army from 1995 to 1998 and on hold-over status for more than a year.

“What was described in that article almost had me in tears”, Lisa wrote. “I have so much suppressed how bad that time was for me. I got nearly suicidal — I even intervened in one hold-over’s attempted suicide (which was covered up by the Drill Sergeant). I had what I called my weekly nervous breakdown. I thought I was just weak. The descriptions in the article are spot on. Total despair…desolation…hopelessness…shame…and the feeling that you have been incarcerated.”

So none should be surprised that, despite the brief, unflattering spotlight on Fort Sill and the vaunted reforms, the life of injured soldiers post-Scarano has not been governed by therapeutic priorities. Immediately following the soldier’s death, post psychologists met with his comrades for a little grief counseling but were taken aback by their anger. Later the survivors were asked to sign a paper acknowledging a new warning that their taking any medication other than what was prescribed, without permission, could result in six months’ imprisonment. They were ordered not to communicate with deVarennes but were allowed to have cell phones, which had to be surrendered to drill sergeants for all but the allotted post-dinner telephone hour.

Within a short time many of those who’d witnessed the corpse were disbursed to other posts. Maybe they were healed. Pvt. Thurman passed exactly the same alternative PT test that he’d passed last November, before a commander decided that he wasn’t fully a soldier if he couldn’t do the two-mile run and sent him to PTRP. Thurman still can’t run and has flat feet, but he’s regular Army now.

Pvt. Clayton Howell, who compiled abuses of a program he said could be summed up in the phrase “Malevolentia Imperium”, from which I took the title of my story, is awaiting discharge for a psychological disorder. He went into PTRP with gall bladder problems. After he found his friend lifeless in his bunk, Howell reminded investigators with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division that well before the fatality he had registered his concern about Scarano’s drugged-up state with Fort Sill’s Community Mental Health Service, which was administering Scarano’s meds.

On April 17, Pat deVarennes received a letter from the Army TRADOC command Surgeon’s Office, which has responsibility for all the PTRPs, thanking her for her efforts, which “have had a positive impact on how the PTRP system is run across the entire army”. On April 21, she received a letter from another Fort Sill PTRP mother named Jacqi, reporting that her son, in with a knee injury, had a fifty-pound weight dropped on his head during physical therapy. He got eight staples in his scalp, Jacqi wrote, “and since has been suffering with crippling headaches that drop him to his knees”. No further tests or a CAT scan had been ordered, and he was eager to recycle to training just to get out of PTRP.

On May 3, Jacqi wrote again saying, “He is still being denied the CAT scan as they ‘feel there is probably nothing wrong’ although they still cannot explain the excruciating headaches just gave him aspirin. I have written and paid for delivery of letters directly to the President, and every member of Congress as well as the first lady. The last batch of letters were done on the 24th of April and still not even an acknowledgement.”

Certainly, not all soldiers who’ve ever experienced PTRP have been mistreated, just as not all soldiers sent to Iraq are killed. A soldier named Danny told me he spent three months at Fort Leonard Wood’s PTRP in 2004 and “met some of the best NCOs (noncommissioned officers) I’ve known in the Army, both on the medical treatment side, and the majority of the cadre (Drill Sergeant types)”. And certainly many in the command who are in the business of reviewing doctrine, putting out brushfires and establishing new protocols truly believe in the salve of reform. But as Danny went on to observe, by way of putting the PTRP abuses in perspective:

“The Army, especially in ‘Combat Arms’ specialties, which categorizes the majority of the trainees at Sill/Knox/Benning, there is a macho mentality. You have to be tough. The reason for that is obvious, combat arms soldiers are the likely trigger pullers. The Army kills people, as a profession. If you aren’t pulling the trigger, you’re helping the trigger puller in some way. There’s no way to dance around it, the Army kills. The difference between civilian bosses, and military leaders, is that a directive from a military leader is LAW. A military leader can issue an illegal order, and do illegal things. It’s everyone’s responsibility to stop that activity however they can.”

That might be difficult, he noted, because a private may not understand the chain of command. Clearly, having been drilled for obedience, the private may also not recognize when defiance rather than falling in line becomes his duty. “Second”, Danny went on, “the Army culture discourages being injured”.

Put another way, it has contempt for the weak. It has to; the weak won’t kill and won’t necessarily be there sharply at the point of crisis where every soldier depends on every other one to keep from getting killed. The weak, the sick, hinder the mission. As it’s one of the entitlements of power to see that the needs of the mission supersede those of the lone soul, the mission will define the cure. No tinkering, no reform or adjustment of the regs could be expected to make so fundamentally indecent a system decent. The good commander or drill sergeant, like the good prison guard, makes a difference, as anyone who’s been in combat or under lock will testify. But ultimately even the best of them are worked by orders beyond their control.

Two days after the Times ran Blumenthal’s story, the Hartford Courant reported that the Army has been sending Iraq veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder back into combat, sometimes for second and third deployments. Officially that is disapproved, and medically deplored, as is sending schizophrenics or other mentally ill people into combat, but they go, all of them, many pumped with Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Trazadone or other psychotropics that the Army made more widely available in the combat zone as of 2004. Antidepressants are contraindicated for people with PTSD, but the reigning philosophy appears to be, Drug ’em up and hope they tough it out. There is little or no monitoring of medication use or mental health counseling in the combat zone.

In 2005, the Courant’s investigation revealed, twenty-two soldiers committed suicide in Iraq, about one in five of all non-combat deaths there last year, the highest rate since the war began. At least eleven of those who killed themselves were kept on duty despite showing signs of psychic distress, and in seven of the cases superiors knew of the problem.

“The Army has a mission to fight”, the Army’s top mental health expert, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, told the Courant, “and, as you know, recruiting has been a challenge.” So sick men are sent into war. As Bob Johnson, a psychologist who served as chief of combat stress control for the Army’s 2nd Brigade last year, told the paper, “You have to become comfortable with things we wouldn’t normally be comfortable with. If there were an endless supply [of troops], the compassionate side of you just wants to get these people out of here. They’re miserable. You can see it in their faces. But I had to kind of put that aside.”

In the end, it was foolish of me to think that the death of PFC Scarano should have caused much of a stir. Death has lost its weightiness, and suffering become a banal acquaintance. So many killed in Iraq, what’s one more soldier? So many civilians snuffed in an instant, forty here, fifteen there, three, two, twenty-five, men and women, children, Iraqis, Afghanis, terrorists, real and imagined, daily, who can keep up? So many maimed, mad, scrambled from the killing and the fear, so many tortured or taken in binds, how incidental, how trivial it is that one young man in pain, one damaged Army asset, should die in his sleep. It was all too standard for scandal.

JoAnn WYPIJEWSKI can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net






JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.