Army base under fire for care

Reports of suicides, mistreatment of psychological patients raise congressional interest

May 13, 2007|By New York Times News Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The nightmares that tormented Sgt. Walter Padilla after returning home from Iraq in 2004 prompted extensive treatment by Army doctors, an honorable discharge from the military and a cocktail of medications to ease his suffering.

But Padilla, 28, 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 fatally shot himself in his Colorado Springs home.

Padilla suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that had been diagnosed at Fort Carson Army base, where concerns over the treatment of returning soldiers struggling with the condition compelled members of Congress to ask the Government Accountability Office last month to reassess the military's mental health policies.

A letter signed by nine senators refers to "a number of upsetting allegations" at the base regarding a lack of treatment for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and the stigmatization of those with the condition. Tomorrow, some of those senators' staff members will visit Fort Carson to meet with soldiers, families and commanders. It will be the fourth time this year that congressional staff members will have traveled to the base.

The Army, reeling from fallout over its poor handling of outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, dispatched Brig. Gen. Michael S. Tucker to Colorado to speak with the base's leaders and soldiers Tuesday.

Tucker, the deputy commander of Walter Reed, commended Fort Carson for its treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and said he viewed the congressional visits as a means of highlighting the base's programs that deal with the condition, said an Army spokesman, Paul Boyce.

But Veterans for America, an advocacy group that has lobbied the Army and Congress on behalf of returning soldiers, said the Army must do better, particularly at Fort Carson, where soldiers with the disorder have spoken of being punished by their commanders.

"Fort Carson is overwhelmed with men and women coming home from Iraq with psychological injuries from war, and there are unit commanders here who don't understand these medical conditions," said Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs for the organization.

Col. John Cho, the base's chief medical officer, said Fort Carson has treated 1,703 soldiers for post-traumatic stress disorder since 2003. Cho disputed the assertion that problems at Fort Carson were widespread. "We're never going to fully eliminate the stigma associated with PTSD, but the leadership at Carson has been fully supportive of getting soldiers the help they need," he said.

The Army reports seven suicides of active-duty soldiers at Fort Carson since 2004 but says it does not know whether any were linked to the disorder. Padilla was not included among the seven because he died after being discharged.

Staff Sgt. Mark Alan Waltz, who was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, was found dead in his living room April 30. An autopsy of Waltz, 40, is pending, but his wife, Renea, believes her husband died of a reaction to the antidepressants he was taking for stress and painkillers prescribed for a back injury. Renea Waltz is also convinced that the psychological wounds he carried from battle played a part in his death.

Waltz said her husband was reluctant to seek treatment after returning from Iraq in 2004 because he thought a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder would cost him his rank. She said the condition was diagnosed and he was referred for treatment. Even then, she said, he was "picked out, scrutinized and messed with continually" by his commanding officers.

Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, the acting Army surgeon general, said Fort Carson had taken "the bull by the horns" in combating the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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