Fighting PTSD; Fighting the US Army

During Eugene Cherry’s deployment in Iraq, he witnessed unspeakable horrors that were seared into his memory. Like many others, he returned with his physical being intact, but struggled mightily with aggressive behavior, uncharacteristic outbursts of emotion and dizzying mood swings.

But when he went to military medical facilities with these classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Eugene found his commanding officers and base medical personnel woefully unequipped to help him.

After he went AWOL to deal himself with his crisis of depression and anxiety, the military sought to demote, dishonorably discharge and imprison Eugene for the “crime” of trying to salvage his mental health.

This is where the case of Eugene Cherry diverges from countless thousands of other men and women who served in Iraq. Today, a few weeks after his scheduled court-martial, Eugene is a free man–a civilian again, with a general discharge under honorable conditions.

This infuriated some of Eugene’s commanding officers, who had taunted him with threats of demotion and imprisonment. “You must have had Johnnie Cochran for a lawyer,” fumed one.

In fact, Eugene had something better.

Eugene returned in June 2005 from his yearlong deployment to Iraq as a medic with the 10th Mountain Division.

In a low, hoarse voice, he recounts how his explosive ordnance team cleared a neighborhood of Iraqi civilians so it could explode a van packed with explosives at one in the morning. When the “all clear” signal was given, the van was detonated, largely demolishing the apartment building it was parked in front of.

Suddenly, amid the smoke, flames and debris caused by the blast, “a bunch of people came running out of their houses, screaming and yelling that people are hurt,” Eugene said in an interview. “Next thing I know, they’re yelling my name, ‘Cherry, we need you, we need you!’”

First, there was a grandfather whose 8-year-old grandson had glass embedded in his face. Then, Eugene was called to a more urgent case.

“I walk into what once was somebody’s living room,” Eugene remembers. And when he turned over the middle-aged woman lying face down, “half her face was blown off–there was a flap of skin barely holding the right side on,” he recalls. “She also had an eye avulsion, a gash across her chest and a partial amputation of her right foot.”

The platoon leader asked if the woman needed a medevac, and Eugene immediately said yes. But five minutes later, all the troops were moving out, the medevac was canceled, and the woman was placed in an Iraqi ambulance with four other people.

Eugene can’t say for sure, but he doubts that she made it.
And Eugene’s squad never discussed the incident again.

This is when Eugene began having difficulty sleeping–terrible insomnia that plagues him to this day. He requested treatment for PTSD while still in Iraq, and when he got back to Fort Drum, home to the 10th Mountain Division, he continued to seek it.

But the base–where 15,000 of the most heavily deployed soldiers in the U.S. military are stationed–was unprepared to deal with Eugene’s symptoms. So Eugene made the decision to go AWOL, and returned to Chicago’s South Side to live with his mother while he sought counseling.

Once home, his mother called the GI Rights Hotline, which put her in touch with Ray Parrish, a GI rights counselor based in Chicago who has become an expert at helping people get benefits and medical treatment out of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Ray arranged for Eugene to be treated by Hannah Frisch, a clinical psychologist with 37 years experience, who specializes in PTSD.

Sixteen months later, Eugene felt sufficiently strong to return to Fort Drum–and face whatever disciplinary sanctions the military decided to throw at him.

It’s no secret why military service members like Eugene can’t get treatment while they’re on active duty or after they get out–the military establishment systematically disregards the mental health of returning troops.

The Defense Department makes only a symbolic effort to determine whether returning troops need help–despite the fact that numerous studies show at least one in three Iraq veterans and one in nine Afghanistan veterans will face a serious mental health issue, such as depression, anxiety or PTSD.

This effort amounts to a questionnaire about battle experiences that no one thinks soldiers fill out truthfully–primarily because they fear retribution for reporting mental problems, and because many are told that they will have to stay on base for further observation instead of going on leave to see their families if they report issues.

Moreover, Navy psychologist Mark Russell testified before the President’s Task Force on Mental Health that only 10 percent of military psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers have received recommended training for dealing with PTSD diagnosis and treatment.

Military personnel who seek care must struggle with the disastrous effects of the VA’s chronic mismanagement, underfunding and jumbled bureaucracy.

“Massive miscalculations by the VA have dramatically worsened the mental health crisis,” according to a report on military mental health issues prepared by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “In February 2006, the VA claimed it was expecting only 2,900 new veteran PTSD cases in FY 2006. The actual number is likely to be about six times that: 17,827 new veterans received an initial PTSD diagnosis.”

This is just one symptom of a larger problem of backlogged VA claims. More than 700,000 new veterans are eligible for VA-provided health care, and about one-third have already sought it.

Since 2003, the number of pending claims at the VA has climbed steadily to 378,000–83,000 of which have been pending for more than six months. The average wait time has risen to 127 days, and an appeal of a soldier’s disability rating can take 657 days–almost two years.

It’s not difficult to figure out why so many able-bodied troops return with debilitating mental health issues. Study after study has documented that multiple deployments, longer deployments and shorter breaks between deployments increase the susceptibility of active-duty troops to adverse reactions to combat stress.

Plus, as Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott told the Senate Armed Services Committee, the military has a “strong incentive to assign [disability] ratings less than 30 percent so that only separation pay is required and continuing family health care is not provided.”

In the words of Ron Smith of Disabled American Veterans, “People are being systematically underrated. It’s a bureaucratic game to preserve the budget.”

The consequences of this fiscal cruelty are everywhere–and they’re devastating. The number of suicides in the Army is the highest since 1993. And that doesn’t count people like Sgt. Walter Padilla who commit suicide after they’ve been discharged.

According to the New York Times, Padilla, who had been diagnosed with PTSD at Fort Carson, “could not ward off memories of the people he had killed with a machine gun perched on his Bradley fighting vehicle. On April 1, according to the authorities and friends, he withdrew to the shadows of his Colorado Springs home, pressed the muzzle of his Glock pistol to his temple and squeezed the trigger.”

Alcohol- and drug-related incidents are also on the rise, a nearly three-fold increase from 2005 to 2006. And now 8,000 female veterans–a record number–are homeless and living on America’s streets.

In March 2007, Eugene had been waiting several weeks to find out how the military planned on dealing with him, but he knew he was ready for whatever came his way.

“I knew the system,” Eugene says. “I worked an administrative job with upper-level officers and NCOs, who showed me stuff, and I learned stuff on my own, so I knew how to fight the system. In the military, the system is designed to intimidate soldiers and make them feel helpless, like they have no way to fight back.”

Eugene also had plenty of civilian supporters. He didn’t have Johnnie Cochran, but he was in touch with Tod Ensign, the director of Citizen Soldier and founder of the Different Drummer Café, a GI coffeehouse in Watertown, N.Y., just a few miles from Fort Drum. Eugene had also joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).

And he contacted the office of Sen. Barack Obama, who got his start in politics not far from Eugene’s neighborhood in Chicago. Obama’s office launched an investigation into Eugene’s case, requesting all documents in Eugene’s personnel file.

Meanwhile, an effort began in March to launch a full-fledged IVAW chapter at Fort Drum, which in the course of a few months attracted more than a dozen active members.

In mid-May, the Army announced it would try to court-martial Eugene, and his hearing was set to begin July 9. But through the efforts of Parrish, Frisch and Ensign, Eugene’s case started attracting publicity.

Plus, the IVAW organized a bus tour to reach out to active-duty troops at 10 military installations on the East Coast–with the last stop in Watertown on July 8, coincidentally a day before Eugene’s trial was set to begin.

With five days to go, Eugene got the good news. The military was dropping its effort to court-martial him, and instead planned to give him a general discharge under honorable conditions–no reduction in rank, no jail time and the retention of most of his veterans’ benefits, most importantly, his service-connected health care treatment. “Most GIs like Eugene are serving lengthy prison terms for being AWOL this long,” said Parrish.

The difference is that Eugene fought back and fought hard. And rather than hand the IVAW chapter on base another issue to organize around, the brass surrendered.
“It’s all about the support base that you have,” said Eugene. “They want to make it seem like you’re a screwed-up soldier, a liar–that you had issues to begin with. They’ll try every dirty trick you can think of, and that you brought this on yourself. But I got the last laugh.”

ERIC RUDER writes for the Socialist Worker.

Sen. Russ Feingold is a Democrat from Wisconsin..