Mentally ill sent into combat

Investigation finds U.S. military is violating congressional mandate - and its own rules

May 15, 2006|By MATTHEW KAUFFMAN AND LISA CHEDEKEL | MATTHEW KAUFFMAN AND LISA CHEDEKEL,THE HARTFORD COURANT

In the 17 months after their son, Eddie, announced he was heading off to fight the war on terror, Margaret and Edward Brabazon of Bensalem, Pa., had held their breath.

They were accustomed to holding their breath with the boy they had taken in as a foster child at age 3 and adopted at 12 - the boy who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention-deficit disorder by the time he was 10, and who had spent his early teenage years in a psychiatric hospital and group homes for the emotionally disturbed.

They watched with bewildered pride as the young man they had affectionately nicknamed "Crazy Eddie" was handed a uniform and an M-4 rifle and accepted into an elite fraternity - the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

"We were surprised they took him, with the kind of mental problems he had, but we figured the Army must know what they're doing," Margaret said. "We didn't think they'd send him into combat."

On March 9, 2004, less than three months into his second deployment to the Middle East, Spc. Edward W. Brabazon shot himself in the head with his rifle at a palace compound in Baghdad, the Army has concluded. He was 20.

Eddie Brabazon was there because the U.S. military has knowingly sent mentally ill troops to Iraq - in conflict with its own regulations - and turned a blind eye to the mental fitness of thousands of other service members, a Hartford Courant investigation has found.

Despite a congressional mandate to assess the mental health of every soldier sent to a combat zone, interviews and Defense Department records obtained by the Courant reveal a fractured pre-deployment screening process in which less than 1 percent of deploying soldiers ever see a mental health professional.

The military's own studies suggest that as many as one in 11 troops is suffering from a major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, which substantially impairs their ability to function at the time they are deployed to war. But military screeners have arranged mental health evaluations for fewer than one in 300 deploying troops, according to a Courant analysis of screening data for more than 930,000 troops processed from March 2003 through October 2005.

Soldiers who screened positive for possible mental health problems were deemed fit for war 85 percent of the time, according to the data. Those deployment decisions were made although more than 93 percent of troops who screened positive never received a referral to a mental health specialist.

"Command pressure to deploy their people has kind of swept away any efforts that might have been made to improve screening," said Kathleen Gilberd, who counsels service members in San Diego.

The Courant's analysis of confirmed and likely suicide cases among U.S. troops in 2005 shows that at least seven, or about one-third, of the soldiers who killed themselves in Iraq did so within three months of being deemed mentally fit and sent into combat. Suicide experts say that the vast majority of those who take their own lives are suffering from depression or bipolar disorder at the time and that it is doubtful soldiers would spontaneously develop a serious mental illness so quickly after deployment.

The pre-deployment screening misses so many troubled troops in part because it relies entirely on self-reporting, in the form of a single question on a written form that asks service members whether they have received mental health care in the past year - a disclosure the military knows its members are unlikely to make.

In the first 32 months of the war, just 3 percent of deploying troops disclosed that they had sought care or counseling for their mental health in the past year. That small percentage captured through self-reporting is far lower than the more than 20 percent of deploying troops who were found to have mental disorders - 9.3 percent of them considered serious - in a 2004 study by military doctors.

While many soldiers with mental illness opt to stay in the shadows, others, like Army Staff Sgt. Nathan Bailey of Nashville, Tenn., made no secret of their psychiatric problems before the military handed them the guns they used to kill themselves.

Bailey took powerful anti-psychotic medication, and most of the time it was enough to keep him mentally even.

In 2002, Bailey's sister and mother found him in a panicked sweat in his apartment, darting from place to place, telling his relatives that they were in danger, that they were being tracked through their cell phone signals. Doctors at a veterans hospital in Nashville put him in a locked mental ward for several days.

So a year later, when Bailey's unit was preparing to deploy in support of the Iraq war, his sister, Robbie Snapp, urged military leaders to leave him behind. But his commanders had other plans.

Seven months into his tour, military records show, Bailey placed the muzzle of his rifle under his chin, stretched one hand down the long barrel of the weapon, and squeezed the trigger.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, readily acknowledged that the questionnaire developed by the military to comply with the 1997 law is "not very effective" in identifying trouble soldiers. She said the military relies on fellow soldiers and commanders to identify the mentally unfit.

Matthew Kauffman and Lisa Chedekel write for The Hartford Courant.

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