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Military Suicides since the Iraq war began.

Death in the USA: The Army's fatal neglect

Returning U.S. combat soldiers are committing suicide and murder in alarming numbers. In a special series, Salon uncovers the habitual mistreatment behind the preventable deaths.

Editor's note: This is the introduction to a weeklong series of stories called "Coming Home."

By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna

Feb. 9, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Preventable suicides. Avoidable drug overdoses. Murders that never should have happened. Four years after Salon exposed medical neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ultimately grew into a national scandal, serious problems with the Army's healthcare system persist and the situation, at least at some Army posts, continues to deteriorate.

This story is no longer just about lack of medical care. It's far worse than sighting mold and mouse droppings in the barracks. Late last month the Army released data showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Another 15 deaths are still under investigation as potential suicides. "Why do the numbers keep going up?" Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a Jan. 29 Pentagon news conference. "We can’t tell you." On Feb. 5, the Army announced it suspects 24 soldiers killed themselves last month, more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

But suicide is only one manifestation of the unaddressed madness and despair coming home with U.S. troops. Salon's close inspection of a rash of murders and suicides involving soldiers at just one base reveals that many of the deaths seem avoidable. Salon put together a sample of 25 suicides, prescription overdoses and murders among soldiers at Colorado's Fort Carson since 2004. Intensive study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of preventable deaths, meaning a suicide or murder might have been avoided if the Army had better handled the predictable, well-known symptoms of a malady rampant among combat veterans: combat-related stress and brain injuries.

Salon chose Fort Carson as a laboratory almost by chance. The story started to emerge on its own last summer during reporting at Fort Carson that exposed an alleged friendly fire incident involving soldiers posted there. It was clear during several visits to interview soldiers who'd witnessed the deaths of their colleagues that there was psychological turmoil on the base. Paranoid soldiers were running around with guns. There was prescription and illicit drug abuse, extremely heavy drinking, suicide and murder.

The soldiers seemed to be suffering classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: explosions of anger, suicidal and homicidal ideation, flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia. The Army was responding, for the most part, with disciplinary action rather than treatment, evincing little concern for possible underlying problems. The soldiers self-medicated further. Predictable outcomes followed.

The Army handled the families of the disturbed and neglected soldiers callously. Last November, as detailed today in the first of Salon's multi-part series on preventable deaths at Fort Carson, officers provided paint for a mother to paint over her son's suicide note, which he had scrawled on a barracks wall. Two years after his return from Iraq, Army doctors still hadn't properly diagnosed him with PTSD. Two other troubled soldiers died after the Army handed them a brutally heavy and in one case toxic combination of drugs for their symptoms. In a moving prison interview, another soldier explained to Salon how better treatment might have prevented him, a month after returning from his second tour in Iraq, from being involved in the November 2007 murder of a fellow soldier.

There were other deadly blunders. In the press for warm bodies in Iraq, Fort Carson sent a soldier, diagnosed with PTSD and a brain injury, back into combat, where he committed suicide by overdosing on some of his eight prescription drugs. Medical records show Fort Carson dispatched another soldier to Iraq despite a diagnosis of "schizotypal personality disorder," characterized by peculiar beliefs and paranoia. On his return to Colorado, prosecutors say he raped a 19-year-old woman and slit her throat.

Salon documented several completely new cases. A few others have appeared in news articles, though not deeply explored.

After the Walter Reed scandal finally exploded in 2007, a presidential commission led by former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., responded by recommending in July 2007 a series of steps to aggressively treat combat stress, among other things. President Bush ordered a raft of initiatives to help returning troops. In interviews, Army officials produced a laundry list of new programs designed to address some of these very problems, from a 24-7 counseling hotline to hiring 250 new mental health professionals since the spring of 2007. Presumably, these programs saved some lives.

Out in the shadow of Pikes Peak, however, it is easy to find examples where the initiatives didn’t seem to ease the misery. At least three Fort Carson soldiers committed suicide just last month as we raced to complete our reporting.

And there are good reasons to think the problems fester far beyond Colorado. Shalala expressed concern at the apparent lack of progress at places like Fort Carson. "We clearly are not doing enough when they come back," she said in a telephone interview. "This doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar."

President Obama says he wants to bring tens of thousands of troops home from Iraq. How will the government respond when they need help the most?

"The Death Dealers took my life!"

Adam Lieberman tried to kill himself when he returned from Iraq. Only then did the Army take his mental health seriously.

By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna

Adam Lieberman

Right: Courtesy Heidi Lieberman

Army Pvt. Adam Lieberman attempted suicide on October 30, 2008, leaving a suicide note scrawled on the wall of his Fort Carson, Colorado barracks.

Feb. 9, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- The day before Halloween 2008, Army Pvt. Adam Lieberman swallowed handfuls of prescription pain pills and psychotropic drugs. Then he picked up a can of black paint and smeared onto the wall of his room in the Fort Carson barracks what he thought would be his last words to the world.

"I FACED THE ENEMY AND LIVED!" Lieberman painted on the wall in big, black letters. "IT WAS THE DEATH DEALERS THAT TOOK MY LIFE!"

Soldiers called Lieberman's unit, the 1st Battalion, 67th Armored Regiment, the Death Dealers. Adam suffered serious mental health problems after a year of combat in Iraq. The Army, however, blamed his problems on a personality disorder, anxiety disorder or alcohol abuse -- anything but the war. Instead of receiving treatment from the Army for his war-related problems, Adam faced something more akin to harassment. He was punished and demoted for his bad behavior, but not treated effectively for its cause. The Army's fervent tough-guy atmosphere discouraged Adam from seeking help. Eventually he saw no other way out. Now, in what was to be his last message, he pointed the finger at the Army for his death.

It would be a voice from beyond the grave, he thought, screaming in uppercase letters. The last words, "THAT TOOK MY LIFE!" tilted down the wall in a slur, as the concoction of drugs seeped into Adam's brain.

Late last month the Army released figures showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. The Army says 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008 with another 15 still under investigation. "Why do the numbers keep going up?" Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a Pentagon news conference Jan. 29. "We can't tell you." The Army announced a $50 million study to figure it out.

It is not just the suicides spiraling out of control. Salon assembled a sample of 25 cases of suicide, prescription drug overdoses or murder involving Fort Carson soldiers over the past four years, by no means a comprehensive list. In-depth study of 10 of those cases revealed a pattern of preventable deaths. In most cases, the deaths seemed avoidable if the Army had better handled garden-variety combat stress reactions.

Interviews, Army documents and medical records suggest that Adam might not have attempted suicide if he had received a proper diagnosis and treatment. His suicide attempt seems avoidable. But the Army's mistreatment extended well into its aftermath.

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At the last minute on Oct. 30, Lieberman stumbled out of his room and dialed 911. He lived.

Five days later Adam's mother, Heidi Lieberman, sat opposite the desk of Lieberman's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Lance Kohler, at Fort Carson. Nobody from the Army had bothered to call her in Rochester, N.Y., to tell her about Adam's suicide attempt. There was no requirement to alert parents of an attempt, the Army said, only a successful suicide.

Heidi had watched her son's mental health deteriorate precipitously after he returned from Iraq in late 2006. He had suffered from a laundry list of symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress disorder, including insomnia, depression, panic attacks and flashes of violent anger.

Two days after he swallowed the pills, Adam called his mother himself from the hospital. With her son still slurring his words from the effect of the meds, Heidi could barely understand him. When Heidi asked him where he was, Adam had to ask someone.

Sitting across from the lieutenant colonel's desk, Heidi wanted to know why the Army had not moved her son into a unit supposedly dedicated to healthcare where he might get better treatment.

"Well, he has legals," Kohler told her. Legal trouble. She knew Adam was struggling. Mostly Adam had been silencing his demons with 30 beers a day plus some Jameson. He'd puke in a bucket and start over. Mental health professionals call it self-medicating when a soldier comes back from war and turns to booze when he can't get help, another typical reaction. Just as predictable is the bad behavior that comes with it.

To Heidi, Kohler's response showed that the Army considered Adam a discipline problem, but didn't seem particularly concerned about why.

"What legals?" Heidi asked.

Adam had broken into a candy machine, so petty larceny. He had also gone AWOL for a short time to say goodbye to an Army buddy in Texas headed off to a second tour in Iraq. The Army denied Adam's request for leave. He went anyway.

"And defacing government property," Kohler added to the list.

"When did he do this?"

"Within the last couple of days," Kohler responded, staring.

Heidi thought. No. Couldn't be.

"What did he deface?"

Kohler stared. "The wall in his bedroom."

Heidi met his stare, exasperated. "You mean his suicide note?" Kohler just looked at her.

The next day Heidi called Adam's company commander, Capt. Phelps.

"You know," Heidi fired at Phelps, "I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that my son is being charged with defacing government property and you people are more concerned about your wall than my son," she stammered. Then she threatened, half jokingly, "I will paint that wall and make this stupidity go away."

A pause, and then Phelps snapped, "We'll contact supply and have them bring you the matching paint."

And so, the Army allowed a mother to paint over her son's suicide note. Heidi's handicapped sister helped.

"I was kind of surprised that they took me up on that," she said late last year sitting at her dining room table in her home in Rochester, N.Y. Heidi's sister took photos of her, paint roller in hand, erasing what was supposed to be her son's last message. "He agreed that if I painted that wall that charge would go away," she recalled about her talk with Adam's captain. "It didn't."

Just before Christmas, MPs fingerprinted and booked Adam for defacing government property.

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A blondish crew cut tops Adam Lieberman's lanky, lumbering 6-foot-6 frame. He makes little eye contact. Adam joined the Army at age 17. In late 2005 he deployed to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division as a forward observer, a radioman. He is all of 21 now.

More than two years after his return from Iraq, where several close explosions rocked his skull, his memory sometimes fails him. He carries a notebook to keep track of appointments. He still writes the occasional letter backward.

Adam is now at the stage of digesting (or at least sharing) his experiences in Iraq in a passive tense -- he describes things happening to him and around him, rather than by him. He arrived at the scene of a roadside bomb attack on other U.S. troops in Sadr City in Baghdad. "A guy's face was blown off from his nose to his chin," he said as we sat at his dining room table with Heidi while he was home on leave recently. The U.S. soldier was gagging, drowning in blood without a mouth or nose. A medic performed an emergency tracheotomy. The soldier died anyway.

Adam didn't even bother to inspect the nearby Humvee that took a direct hit. He could see through the windows that inside the vehicle, "It was blood soup."

During another engagement a gunner atop Adam's Humvee suddenly collapsed in Adam's lap. Only a thin flap of skin attached the gunner's head and torso. Beheaded. Adam vomited.

He once saw the lower half of a friend's body sheared off by a roadside bomb. In the seconds that followed before he died, his friend still moved his right arm and tried to talk. He looked at Adam. Adam described the look in his eyes as "terror."

Adam once took a sniper's bullet to the chest. It shattered his digital camera and hit his body armor. On two separate occasions he lost consciousness because of head blows.

Heidi noticed a difference in Adam when she met him at the airport in December 2006. "When he got off the plane and we were walking, I saw his eyes shifting through the crowd," she remembered.

Crowds freaked him out. Adam had a panic attack in a Wal-Mart. He started getting into fights at bars. He couldn't sleep. "You become a new person," he explained. "You are raised as a person and they send us over there and we become a new person."

The Army "screened" Adam for mental health problems upon his return from Iraq, a process Adam describes as, "You stand in a line and go to a bunch of tables where people are sitting." He filled out some forms. Some soldiers aren't yet aware of their problems at that point. Some lie because they just want to go home with their wives. Others say they report problems but receive little follow-up.

"Nobody is willing to help anybody," he said about his experience at Fort Carson after returning from Iraq. "You have to understand. We are just pieces of equipment."

The Army says it is working hard to erase the stigma of seeking mental healthcare. It isn't working at Fort Carson. Adam says he was actively discouraged from looking for help.

"If you have a problem, you are going to be a problem," he explained. "You don't ask for help -- ever. That is just the Army's way. Always will be."

A document obtained from another unit at Fort Carson supports Adam's description of a culture that discourages "weakness." Someone in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team prepared a mock official form called a "Hurt Feelings Report," and left a stack of copies near a sheet where soldiers sign out to see a doctor.

"Reasons for filing this report: Please circle Yes or No," the Hurt Feelings Report directs. Options include: I am thin skinned; I am a pussy; I have woman-like hormones; I am a queer; I am a little bitch; I am a cry baby; I want my mommy; All of the above. A blank appears after, "Name of 'Real Man' who hurt your sensitive feelings."

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, the Fort Carson commander, admits that the attitude of Army personnel toward mental healthcare needs work. "Because of the focus we have had on behavioral health, we have seen an increase in soldiers coming forward to get help," he told me. "Is it as many as we think are out there? No, it is not. Do I think that we still have a stigma challenge here? Absolutely, we do."

By December of 2007, Adam was getting increasingly violent. "I fucking punched a guy," he recalled about a fight in the barracks. "I dragged him out of my room and threw him down the stairs." On Dec. 20, 2007, he filled out an Army "PTSD checklist." He checked off being "extremely bothered" by flashbacks, nightmares, bad memories, emotional numbness, insomnia and angry outbursts. He also reported panic attacks and jumpiness, among other things.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's top psychiatrist, ticks off a series of initiatives to improve Army mental healthcare, including the hiring of 250 new mental health providers through civilian contracts and more than 40 marriage and family therapists since the spring of 2007. Ritchie said an August 2007 Army directive ensures PTSD screenings for soldiers with disciplinary problems so serious the Army wants them out. She added that the Army surgeon general issued a memo in May 2008 requiring additional review of any diagnoses short of PTSD to make sure the Army gets it right. "We've really tried to enhance our access to care," she said in a telephone interview.

Though Adam filled out his checklist in late 2007, the initiatives Ritchie describes did not trickle down to him. Throughout this entire period, Adam's medical records show, the Army focused almost completely on his misbehavior, like drinking and fighting, and demoted him from specialist to private, but did not address the root cause. The Army enrolled Adam in an Army substance abuse program he called a "joke." The Army wanted him to work on anger management. "I was like, 'I don't have anger problems. You people are causing me to be angry.'"

By the spring of 2008, Adam's condition had deteriorated. "He called me in April and said he really wanted to die," Heidi recalled. "He told me he had his Mustang up to 120 and pointed at a cliff. I told him he needed to get help now. No more dealing with it on his own."

This time Adam checked himself into a private facility. A doctor soon informed him he had PTSD from his experience in Iraq. "That's when I started figuring it out myself," Adam told me. "I realized I was not an alcoholic, I was just self-medicating."

After a few weeks, however, Adam had to return to Fort Carson, where the Army still basically considered him a drunk and a discipline problem.

That's contrary to proper treatment of PTSD. "The best way to treat it is to identify it appropriately," said Dr. Anthony Ng, a psychiatrist and board member of Mental Health America.

In addition to hundreds of pages of medical records he gave me, Adam agreed to hand over a copy of his illustrated journal. An undated entry from after his private hospitalization notes that, "Since returning from the hospital my ball of twine has been unraveling fast. ... The woman at [Fort Carson's] mental health dismissed me as if I were a bum asking for money," he wrote, and then recorded one of those flashes of anger common to soldiers with PTSD. "I wanted to rip her jaw off and scrape the skin off her face with her Goddamn teeth."

"But I wasn't surprised," Adam's entry continues. "That's Army health care."

In June or July 2008, he got a call from an Army psychologist. "She didn't even know my name," he told me. "I'd seen her three times. How is she going to help me if she can't even remember my name?"

The Army also seems to have resisted recognizing Adam's likely traumatic brain injury, given his head blows in Iraq and subsequent memory loss and other symptoms. The Army put him through a battery of tests on Oct. 15 to determine if he might be eligible for disability pay for a brain injury. Adam tested "within normal limits," his medical records show. "There is no evidence of clinically significant cognitive impairments."

(Civilian neurosurgeons generally say that doctors should stash the tests and MRI exams for the most part, since TBI is notoriously difficult to pin down that way, and look to behavior instead. Patients with a history of head trauma who present with obvious symptoms should receive swift treatment for TBI).

Adam's Army medical records from Oct. 30, the day of his suicide attempt, look similar to all of his Army medical records. The Army psychologist noted "alcohol dependence with continuous drinking behavior," depression and anxiety disorder -- his problems, not the Army's.

A diagnosis of PTSD from combat would require the Army to pay Adam a lifetime of benefit checks. The Army would not have to pay if a doctor were to find instead that his mental problems were preexisting and/or unrelated to his Army service. Adam said his Army psychologist "has been trying to give me a personality disorder since Day One, that I wanted to kill people before I got into the Army." Soldiers also don't get benefits if they are ushered out the door with dishonorable discharges for misbehaving.

On Oct. 30 the Army psychologist noted "homicidal ideation," or thinking about murder, but "no homicidal plans." She also noted "no suicidal ideation."

Adam admitted he lied on that one. He had made up his mind. "I didn't want her to interfere," he said. "I was thinking about killing myself, but I was restricted to post for drinking on duty so I could not get my gun. I went to my room and swallowed all my pills."

Adam painted his note on the wall. And then he changed his mind. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital. He "remember[s] them trying to get me to drink this charcoal stuff" at the hospital, but not much more. "I woke up and I was chained to the bed."

Nine days after Adam's suicide attempt, the Army psychologist changed her diagnosis, according to Adam's medical records. He had "chronic post-traumatic stress disorder." It was the first time the Army seemed willing to admit that a year of war caused Adam's problems. "It took me trying to kill myself for her to put it on there," Adam told me.

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Unfortunately, the problem likely goes beyond Fort Carson. Maj. Gen. Graham, the Fort Carson commander, makes noted efforts to recognize and address the problems. "Our goal is to get in front of this," Graham said in a telephone interview. "Instead of doing the investigation following a suicide, to find out how this happened and how we could have prevented it, what we want to do is actually prevent them and get in front of this and figure out how you help a soldier before it gets to a point of critical mass and something horrible is going to happen," he added. "Are we perfect? No. Are we trying? We are. Can we do better? Of course we can."

Graham's power to do better is limited, however. The Army Medical Command runs medical care at Fort Carson and other Army posts. MEDCOM reports to the Army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, not Graham.

And some Army fighting units, or "line" units, stationed at Graham's post have failed to incorporate the prevention, recognition and treatment of combat stress into their wartime mission. At Fort Carson a mental problem from combat is still a scarlet letter.

Meanwhile, the deaths keep coming. At least three Fort Carson soldiers died in apparent suicides in January. (Fort Carson quibbles with this statistic, claiming that one of the three had not completed the paperwork to be officially stationed at Fort Carson. The death of a second soldier, found dead in his home from a "drug interaction," is still under investigation.)

Are you a pussy?

When Army Pvt. Adam Lieberman tried to commit suicide, his mother had to paint over his suicide note. See the photos here, as well as the "Hurt Feelings Report."

By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna

Feb. 9, 2009 | On Oc. 30, 2008, Army Pvt. Adam Lieberman attempted to kill himself via prescription drug overdose at Fort Carson, Colo. After swallowing the pills, he painted a suicide note on the wall of his barracks that read, "I FACED THE ENEMY AND LIVED! IT WAS THE DEATH DEALERS THAT TOOK MY LIFE!"

Lieberman survived the attempt. Five days later, his mother, Heidi, arrived in Colorado and was told that her son would be charged with defacing government property for scrawling his suicide note on the barracks wall. Heidi Lieberman told her son's commanding officer that she would repaint the wall herself to "make this stupidity go away." The officer took her up on her offer.

Heidi Lieberman painted over the note, documenting both the note and the paint job photographically. Those photos appear on this page and Pages 2, 3 and 4. On Page 5 there are two undated photos of Adam Lieberman in uniform.

The final page shows a mock Army document produced by an unknown person in Fort Carson's 3rd Brigade Combat Team (which is not Lieberman's unit), apparently to poke fun at troops who seek medical attention. Stacks of the "Hurt Feelings Report" were found near a sheet where soldiers sign out to see a doctor. "Reasons for filing this report: Please circle Yes or No," the Hurt Feelings Report directs. Options include: I am thin skinned; I am a pussy; I have woman-like hormones; I am a queer; I am a little bitch; I am a cry baby; I want my mommy; All of the above.

Amy Lieberman painting over her son's suicide note.



Adam Lieberman and the "Hurt Feelings Report"



Hurt Feelings Report

"Kill yourself. Save us the paperwork"

Pfc. Ryan Alderman, now deceased, sought medical help from the Army. He got a fistful of powerful drugs instead.

By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna

Pfc. Ryan Alderman

Courtesy Tim Alderman

Pfc. Ryan Alderman in Iraq in an undated photo.

Feb. 10, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- It was unseasonably warm for November in Colorado as Heidi Lieberman approached the door of the Soldiers' Memorial Chapel at Fort Carson. She walked past a few of the large evergreens that dot the chapel grounds and then entered the blockish, modern beige and brown chapel topped with a sharp, rocketlike steeple.

Inside, the chapel was hushed. Camouflage-clad, crew-cut young men packed the pews. Up in front, an empty Army helmet hung on the butt of an upright M16. A pair of brown combat boots sat below, as if they had been tucked under a bunk. A soldier handed Heidi a program for a memorial service. On the front was the image of a soldier, kneeling in prayer below an American flag and illuminated by a beacon of light from above. The inscription just below the kneeling soldier read, "Lord, grant me the strength ..."

It had been five days since Heidi's son Adam, 21, a soldier at Fort Carson, swallowed handfuls of prescription sleeping pills and psychotropic drugs in the barracks, trying to die. With a can of black paint, Adam brushed a suicide note on the wall of his room. The Army, Adam wrote, "took my life."

Adam had lived. Pfc. Timothy Ryan Alderman wasn't so lucky. Alderman had been found dead of a similar drug overdose in his room in the barracks at Fort Carson in the early-morning hours of Oct. 20, 10 days before Adam Lieberman made his suicide attempt.

Heidi, who was at Fort Carson to deal with the aftermath of her own son's suicide attempt, had decided to attend Alderman's funeral although neither she nor her son had known him. She sank into a pew and tried to reconcile two warring thoughts.

"On the one hand I was thinking, How dare the Army?" she told me later. "It is almost a slap in the face for the Army to present this lovely memorial service. It just seemed so hypocritical. Here was a kid who was screaming for help. He killed himself and they are making nice-nice?"

"On the other hand," she recalled thinking as she scanned the pews for family of the dead soldier, "I was thinking, God, this could have been me."

Both men were 21. Both served long combat tours in Iraq. Both overdosed on drugs. Both had sought help from the Army, and the Army had failed them. Sadly, however, their stories are far from unique.

Late last month, the Army announced data showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Another 15 deaths are still under investigation as potential suicides. And suicide is only one manifestation of the mental health ills coming home with U.S. troops. Four years after Salon first exposed problems with healthcare at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ultimately became a national scandal, the situation, at least at some Army posts, has only deteriorated. For the "Coming Home" series, in which today's two entries are the second installment, Salon put together a sample of 25 cases of suicide, prescription drug overdoses or murder involving Fort Carson soldiers since 2004. A close study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of avoidable deaths, meaning that a suicide or murder might well have been prevented had the Army better handled the predictable and well-known symptoms of combat stress. As Alderman's death shows, part of the problem is an apparent tendency of Army doctors to substitute large doses of prescription medication for adequate mental healthcare.

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Timothy Ryan Alderman grew up in Mulberry, a central Florida town of just 3,200 people, a speck on the map 30 miles inland from Tampa. Though Florida is often thought of as a state full of transplants, Alderman, who went by his middle name, Ryan, had roots in Mulberry. His father had also been raised there, and some of Ryan’s teachers had been his father’s schoolmates. Growing up, Ryan was an avid outdoorsman, hunting rabbit and squirrel and catching bass and bluegill. He was also a passionate skateboarder and surfer. Skateboarding became snowboarding when Ryan joined the Army just after his 18th birthday in 2005 and was stationed at Fort Carson.

Ryan served over a year in Iraq as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, part of the 2nd Infantry Division. His tour, including service in Ramadi, site of some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq, began in October 2006. Soldiers at Fort Carson say he served on 250 missions and had 16 confirmed kills, though it is difficult to independently verify those figures.

It was by all accounts an active and bloody combat tour. His medical records show that when he was in Iraq he did not think he would suffer combat stress afterward, because he "mostly had fun killing people and getting paid for it." If that sounds monstrous, it is actually not unusual for war veterans to describe combat as simultaneously horrifying and thrilling.

Ryan did receive at least three battalion commander "coins for excellence." Some units hand out the engraved, bronze-colored coins as on-the-spot awards for good performance or valor. Correspondence from Ryan's battalion to his family shows that Ryan received one, for example, for extracting another wounded soldier under fire during an ambush.

While Ryan's medical records show he reported no serious mental problems before Iraq, things unwound upon his return in late 2007 and got worse as time passed. In June 2008 Ryan showed up at Fort Carson's hospital and filled out a "behavioral health questionnaire." He reported being "extremely bothered" by disturbing memories, nightmares, panic attacks, trying not to think about the war, emotional numbness, irritation, angry outbursts and jumpiness, among other symptoms.

He reported on the form that his problems began in February 2008, soon after his return from Iraq. On a scale of 1 to 10, Ryan ranked the severity of his situation as an 8. When the form asked, "What are you seeking from this service?" Ryan filled in, simply, "help."

Soldiers face considerable stigma for seeking mental healthcare in some Army units. Old habits die hard, according to the Fort Carson commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, a man with a reputation for working to fix these problems at his post. "We are trying to say that it is a sign of strength and not weakness to come forward and get help."

"What I tell the [officers and non-coms in combat units] is, 'You are not medical professionals. You are not the people that can treat and diagnose this.' So, [their job] is to be caring and compassionate for our soldiers and make sure they get the medical care they need."

"I do think we are making some progress," said Graham, describing the erasure of the stigma for seeking mental healthcare as a top priority. "It is certainly not fast enough for any of us ... It takes time and it takes consistency from the entire Army."

"Any death is regrettable," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's top psychiatrist, in an interview. "And certainly suicide -- which is something I've been looking into very closely -- is extremely tragic for all concerned and we always go back and say, 'How could this have been prevented? What could we have done better?'" Ritchie reels off a laundry list of initiatives for improving Army mental healthcare, like the establishment of a 24-7 hotline for soldiers to help arrange counseling and a new policy, started in the spring of 2008, to ensure that seeking mental healthcare won't mess up a soldier's security clearance. The Army's most recent study of mental health issues in Iraq and Afghanistan showed improvements on decreasing stigma. "The trend is the direction we'd like it to go in," said Ritchie.

At least one of Alderman's superiors apparently didn't get the message. There is a saying that the most powerful man in the Army is a sergeant. That's because when a low-ranking soldier needs just about anything, he has to go to his first sergeant. A former roommate of Alderman's who fought beside him in Iraq took Alderman to his first sergeant to get him mental healthcare. "I escorted Ryan to the first sergeant's office," Alderman's buddy told Salon. According to the friend, the first sergeant "blew [Alderman] off" and said, "Everybody sees what you saw" in Iraq. At one point, alleged the friend, another sergeant told Alderman, "I wish you would just go ahead and kill yourself. It would save us a lot of paperwork."

"The Army treated Ryan as if he was the problem," said the friend, "not that he had a problem."

Alderman's medical records show that in June 2008 he had "homicidal ideation" toward his first sergeant. By August, he was "feeling suicidal." Alderman was hospitalized in June, in August and then finally in October because of his symptoms. Records show doctors saw crosshatch lacerations on his arms. The cuts, Alderman would later reveal, were from self-mutilation.

The records show doctors, however, "ruled out" PTSD as the cause of Alderman's problems, and did so without any recorded explanation. As in Adam Lieberman's case, doctors determined that Alderman's problems were his own, and were not related to his Army service. At various times, doctors instead blamed anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, alcohol abuse, depression "NOS" (not otherwise specified) and anxiety "NOS" -- anything but the war.

Records show that during the summer of 2008, Alderman admitted to doctors that he sought out medication to "numb my feelings." The Army put Alderman in the same substance abuse program as Adam Lieberman, the one Lieberman would later call a "joke."

Alderman's father, Tim, also noticed the change in his son after Iraq, just as Heidi Lieberman noticed a change in Adam. Tim thought Ryan might suffer from PTSD.

Ironically, the Army had educated Tim on PTSD. While his son was in Iraq, the Army had sent Tim "Down Range: To Iraq and Back," by Bridget C. Cantrell and Chuck Dean, a book about PTSD. Tim thought his son's symptoms upon his return made him a prime candidate. He didn't understand why the Army couldn't see the same thing. "I read the book and I knew what to look for," Tim said in a telephone call from his home in Florida. "But he wasn't in my house, he was in their house," he said, referring to the Army.

Tim visited his son in the first week of October during Ryan's last hospitalization. Tim said the visit left him worried that the Army cared little for damaged soldiers. They got pills while being processed out of the military, but not much more. "It looked like a slaughterhouse operation to me," he told me. "Get 'em in. Get 'em out. Get 'em to Iraq."

Ryan's medical records from that period describe his father as "genuine and supportive and tearful at times." Tim also expressed some alarm: His son seemed dangerously stoned on his meds. "Dad noted that Ryan seemed 'out of it' and 'over-medicated,'" according to the records.

Just prior to his death, Ryan Alderman planned to do something about his shoddy treatment at the hands of the Army. He joined a small group of soldiers who wrote and signed sworn statements explaining their predicaments. The plan was to seek some sort of legal help. Salon obtained Alderman's statement from the family of another Fort Carson soldier.

He describes "traumatic events" in Iraq, including the death of friends from roadside bombs and a friendly-fire incident in which U.S. Marines fired on his post. "Upon returning from Iraq, seeking help was discouraged," Alderman wrote in his sworn statement. "So I self medicated and started cutting myself to relief (sic) the pain." (Self-mutilation is a relatively common phenomenon among people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It literally cuts through the emotional numbness, allowing the PTSD sufferer to feel something.)

"I still have nightmares about the war and Staff Sgt. Hager," Alderman wrote in his sworn statement, referring to the bloody death of Staff Sgt. Joshua Hager by roadside bomb on Feb. 23, 2007, in Ramadi. Friends say Alderman pulled Hager's dismembered corpse from the wreckage of a vehicle. "I am seeking help but I feel like I'm not being treated right. I mean mental help. I struggle every day with it."

Alderman dated the sworn statement Oct. 13, 2008. He died seven days later.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

While the Army claims Alderman committed suicide, evidence suggests he might just as well have accidentally overdosed on a massive concoction of prescription drugs the Army gave him, plus a couple of his own.

Possible overmedication is a theme running throughout Alderman's hospitalization and care at the hands of the Army. On Oct. 6, one caregiver wrote in his records that Alderman "appears to be heavily medicated," could not complete sentences and was dozing off. A note on Oct. 8 says Alderman was "very dependent on his medications." On Oct. 11, one caregiver on the evening shift described him as being in a "stupor."

By mid-October, the records describe Alderman as "very much drug seeking." Doctors replaced his Valium and Percocet with alternatives. Alderman responded by demanding to be released from the hospital.

On discharge, records show, doctors had Alderman on 0.5 mg of Klonopin for anxiety three times a day; 800 mg of Neurotin, an anti-seizure medication, three times a day; 100 mg of Ultram, a narcotic-like pain reliever, three times a day; 20 mg of Geodon for bipolar disorder at noon and then another 80 mg at night; 0.1 mg of Clonodine, a blood pressure medication also used for withdrawal symptoms, three times a day; 60 mg of Remeron, for depression, once a day; and 10 mg of Prozac twice a day.

Salon contacted an Army psychiatrist who requested anonymity and read him that list of drugs and the dosage amounts. "Oh God," he said. "That's shitty. That breaks all the rules. He was overmedicated. That's bad medicine."

An Army psychologist at Fort Carson examined Alderman on the day of his discharge from the hospital. She described him as "overly sedated and slurring his words." (The Army psychiatrist Salon called said, "Of course he was.") Despite his heavy prescription load, Alderman still wanted pain pills. The Fort Carson psychologist described Alderman as depressed, anxious and sad, but not contemplating suicide or murder. The psychologist sent Alderman on his way to the barracks. It is the last entry. Alderman was found dead five days later.

Col. Kelly A. Wolgast, the commander of Evans U.S. Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson, declined comment on any specific cases, citing privacy law. "I feel for families who have lost a soldier, no matter how it happened," she said in an interview at her office. "We grieve with them. We will completely pledge to those families that we are doing everything that we possibly can to see that never happens to another soldier. Their sacrifice, we believe, is not in vain."

Alderman's autopsy report blames "multiple drug intoxication" for his death. The cause: suicide. In addition to his meds, Alderman took some Xanax and morphine, adding to the toxic combination, but there is little evidence he meant to die. Tim Alderman thinks his son's body succumbed to the onslaught of drugs, more Heath Ledger than Kurt Cobain. In this case, the cocktail included some drugs supplied by the Army, some abused by Ryan. "His body just shut down," claimed Tim. "It was overloaded."

Ryan's former roommate and battle buddy blames the Army for Ryan's death. "I know he didn't commit suicide," he told me. "I don't think he should have been released from the hospital. I know for a fact the Army killed my friend," he added. "I want something done. The Army is killing people left and right and nobody cares."

The Army ruled Ryan's death a suicide, in part, because he had pinned a letter to his wall addressed to his mother who died of an illness years earlier. Tim shared the note with Salon, along with hundreds of pages of medical records.

The affectionate letter doesn't read much like a suicide note. Ryan pledges that, "You will always be in my heart and soul." Tim said Ryan told him about that letter some time ago. Ryan's medical records show he was writing similar letters to sort out his feelings.

Ryan's intentions in the early hours of Oct. 20, however, seem beside the point. A clear-eyed assessment of his war-related problems might have saved him.

The stakes are always high whenever a parent loses a child. They were especially high for Ryan's father, Tim. Tim's wife died in 2004 from illness. His eldest son, Ryan's older brother, died in 2006 in a car crash. Now Ryan, his last surviving child, is gone. "It was the end of [the] family tree," Tim said about his younger son's death. "Everything I started is gone."

"I am seeking help. I mean mental help"

Read a sworn statement from the late Pfc. Ryan Alderman about what he witnessed in Iraq and his problems receiving adequate medical care from the Army.

By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna

Feb. 10, 2009 | A number of soldiers at the Army's Fort Carson wrote and signed sworn statements in the fall of 2008 complaining about their medical care. Pfc. Timothy Ryan Alderman signed the statement below on Oct. 13, 2008. In it he says, "I am seeking help but I feel like I'm not being treated right. I mean mental help." He died of a drug overdose a week later. The Army has ruled that his death was a suicide.

statement page 1

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Mark Waltz, Kenneth Lehman, Chad Barrett

The details of three more deaths that might have been prevented among Fort Carson-based soldiers.

By Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin

Waltz, Lehman, Barrett

Family Photos

From left: Staff Sgt. Mark Waltz, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth P. Lehman, Staff Sgt. Chad Barrett.

Feb. 10, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- In addition to the stories of Adam Lieberman and Ryan Alderman, Salon examined the cases of three other Fort Carson-based soldiers who committed suicide. A number of common themes emerged. 1) A stigma, within the culture of the Army, against seeking mental healthcare; 2) pressure to deploy soldiers despite medical problems; 3) a failure to diagnose or properly treat combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injuries, despite clear symptoms; 4) a tendency to overmedicate soldiers suffering from either stress disorders or injuries. Lieberman, Alderman and the three soldiers whose suicides are briefly described below all fell prey to one or more of these systemic failures.

Staff Sgt. Mark Waltz
On April 30, 2007, three days after an appointment at Evans Hospital, the Fort Carson hospital, Waltz fell asleep on the couch in his Colorado Springs home. He never woke up.

Forty-year-old Waltz, a member of the 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, had overdosed on painkillers. He needed the drugs to feel better. His body was falling apart. So was his mind. Waltz had "chronic" PTSD. Not only had a bomb exploded near him during his second tour of duty in Iraq, he had been ordered to pick up the body parts from other soldiers killed in the same explosion, according to his wife, Renea. He struggled with thoughts of harming himself. But he didn't want to kill himself, because he didn't want to leave his family behind.

When he died, it wasn't a suicide. Waltz lost his life after Dr. Scot Tebo, a captain at Evans' DiRaimondo clinic, prescribed methadone for Waltz's chronic back pain. According to medical records, Waltz was already taking a powerful pain reliever, morphine. The combination of the drugs made a lethal cocktail. The local coroner ruled Waltz's death a result of "mixed drug intoxication," a medical accident.

In response, Fort Carson launched a "risk management" review, but nearly two years later still refuses to release the results, including whether any health workers were disciplined, saying the findings are protected under federal health privacy law.

Salon has learned, however, that Tebo was deployed to Iraq in 2007 to provide care for troops.

Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth P. Lehman

Lehman, a Green Beret, had served three overseas deployments -- one of them in Iraq -- before he was thrown from his all-terrain vehicle during a training exercise at Fort Carson in September of 2006, cracking his Kevlar helmet and causing bleeding inside his skull. He spent time in a Colorado Springs hospital and then was sent to the Veterans Affairs polytrauma unit in Palo Alto, Calif., as part of a medical boarding process that he and his parents expected meant the end of his military days -- a retirement and a thank you from Uncle Sam, with benefits.

As his father, Paul Lehman, of Franklin, Penn., recalls, his son was proud to have served his country and wanted to keep doing it, but felt he could no longer live up to the Special Forces' rigorous standards. His son suffered from memory loss, often not remembering what he'd done earlier in the day.  He even had to turn his head sideways just to read a menu because of brain and vision issues: "He just wasn't the same after the accident."

In January 2007, Lehman was still grappling with post-concussion syndrome, a form of traumatic brain injury that gave him headaches, made it difficult to concentrate and even caused emotional turmoil. A friend said Lehman would forget medical appointments. He was seen wandering around Fort Carson lost, although he knew the post well. A doctor at Evans noted that Lehman struggled to see, suffering from double images in late January 2007, according to his medical records.

Yet Douglas McNinch, an Evans neuropsychologist, determined on Feb. 1, 2007, that although Lehman "still has some minor cognitive problems" he could be returned to the war in Iraq.

The threat of a looming deployment sparked a deterioration in Lehman's condition that the Army missed again and again. Days later, on Feb. 10, 2007, Lehman was rushed to a clinic after his roommate found him lying unconscious on his couch next to a bottle of Valium, prescribed to him for stiffness and head pain. The clinic concluded that Lehman did not attempt suicide, after speaking with Lehman and a "psychologist who feels that the patient was never suicidal and feels that this was somewhat of a confusing episode." Lehman also told a counselor he was eager to go to Iraq.

But his friends and family say the Army dropped the ball. Lehman privately complained about the care he was receiving and was probably telling people at the clinic what they wanted to hear. He didn't want to appear weak; he was a Special Forces soldier. Yet the incident unmasked new problems. Lehman, who had been exposed to combat and lost friends, now had "chronic" PTSD and depression.

By November 2007, he was again admitted to a clinic, this time after a clash with an ex-girlfriend. He said he had taken "a bunch of Valium to go to sleep," Dr. Mary Zesiewicz wrote in his medical record. Lehman again denied it was a suicide attempt, she wrote. He was released.

On Jan. 30, 2008, Lehman was at Evans. He had to discuss issues surrounding his brain injury, his medical records say. While there, he told Robert M. Lee, a mental health assistant, he was having personal and legal problems. Lee described Lehman as "frustrated," "depressed," "fearful" and "anxious." Again Lehman denied that he was suicidal and was told to return for follow-up on Feb. 1, 2008. Strangely, records for that meeting show Lee noting a vast change in Lehman. He was now in "very good spirits," "happy" and "pleased," according to his records.

The next day, Feb. 2, 2008, Lehman would finally succeed at killing himself, using his medical knowledge. He went into his barracks bathroom with a syringe filled with Lidocaine. He released the anesthetic into his body. Then, using a surgical blade, he cut deep into his left wrist, holding his arm over the bathtub.

Fellow soldiers discovered his body and called for paramedics. It was too late. The 31-year-old Lehman was pronounced dead at Evans hospital, where he'd been one day earlier.

Lehman's suicide was a series of missed chances. He was too tough a case for the psychological workers who served him.

"He just never seemed to get the care he deserved," his father says. "I feel Evans never took a good look at what was really going on with him."

Moreover, the final entry in Lehman's medical record appears suspicious to the Lehmans. Their son's upbeat perspective on Feb. 1 wasn't added to his medical record until Feb. 4, two days after he died.

It is common practice for military health workers to enter information within 72 hours of a medical appointment, according to experts. The Lehmans, however, say their son's medical record shouldn't have been touched, especially since their son had been to the clinic before his death. They feel there should have been an investigation into whether their son received adequate psychological care. The Army's Criminal Investigative Division launched a routine suicide inquiry following Lehman's death, but so far has withheld its conclusions from the Lehmans.

The couple now want an independent probe by Congress regarding their son's case.

"I think they're going to have to clean house and get rid of all these quack doctors they've got working there [at Evans]," says Paul Lehman. "[The] Army let Ken down," adds his wife, Kelly.

Staff Sgt. Chad Barrett
Linda Helton feels the same way about the death of her son, Chad Barrett, who committed suicide on the same day as Ken Lehman. "It's just so difficult to talk about," she says, weeping. "We all loved Chad."

Five weeks after Fort Carson sent Barrett to Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division, he swallowed a lethal combination of prescription antidepressants and sleeping pills.

Barrett, 35, was suffering from acute PTSD, a traumatic brain injury and had trouble sleeping after two tours of Iraq, according to his medical records. And, as a third tour loomed, it seemed, he was on his way out of the Army after 11 years of service. Officials had begun the process of formally retiring him because of his PTSD, according to his medical records. In 2007, he had attempted suicide. A commander wrote: "[A]ll specialists and command agree it is time for Chad to be removed from the United States Army."

Yet Chad's wife, Shelby Barrett, claims her husband didn't want to let his buddies down. So she and her husband met with commanders and convinced them to change their minds. Doctors and commanders halted a medical evaluation process meant to determine Barrett's level of disability for retirement -- a process that mandated Barrett receive "no assignments remote from definitive psychiatric care." Instead, he would go to Iraq to serve as an overnight radio operator.

Before Barrett was deployed on Christmas Day, 2007, Dr. Jonathan A. Olin, an Evans hospital psychiatrist, concluded Barrett had "no suicidal intent." Along with his gear, Barrett packed up eight active prescriptions, including Klonopin for his anxiety and Ambien to help him sleep.

Only weeks after arriving in Mosul, dark thoughts crept into his mind. There were heavy losses among his comrades and he told his parents in an e-mail that he had reached the breaking point: "I can try to play tough all I want, but I know that I am not and that I need help."

His parents encouraged him to find help, but he wrote that he wasn't sure where to turn. The Army only wanted "the correct number of people on the ground ... no matter what the cost," he wrote just hours before he killed himself, adding, "Well everyone will find out the cost soon enough."

After receiving the e-mail, Barrett's family tried to reach the Red Cross to get them to intervene. It wasn't easy; many hours passed. Finally, Helton got a message through. It was relayed to Barrett's superiors at 7:55 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2008. But by the time superiors tracked down Barrett at 8:30 a.m., his roommate and medics were already in the throes of trying to save his life.

"Next thing I knew I was getting a call that Chad was gone," Helton says, adding, "Why didn't the Army do more to watch him? They knew he had troubles when they sent him; they should have never sent him."

Barrett's note, on yellow legal paper, was simple. On the outside it was marked, "THOUGHTS IN MY HEAD." On the inside, Barrett wrote a long list of one-line statements: "Lost," "Hopeless," "Anger," "Sadness," "Wanting to cry," "No reason or purpose in life ... Failed as a soldier ... Wanting to die ... Command will get rid of their problem soldier ..."

The Army's Criminal Investigative Division conducted an inquiry, but not to investigate whether the care system had failed Barrett, as Helton had hoped. Instead, in a finding that Helton calls an insult to her son's memory, investigators concluded that when Barrett killed himself, he broke military law because he did not take his medication in the prescribed dosage. In other words, had Barrett lived, he could have faced a court-martial for "wrongful use of a controlled substance."

Helton also wonders whether some of the drugs the Army prescribed to her son made him feel suicidal. For example, Barrett was prescribed Clonzepam and Topiramate. Both include warnings that suicide could be an adverse reaction.

After his 2007 suicide attempt, Helton argued that prescription antidepressants could be the cause. While on the drugs, Barrett seemed confused, she says: "It didn't even sound like my son." When Barrett was taken off the drugs during hospitalization at a clinic, he returned to his good-natured self, she adds.

Still, Barrett found it tough to adjust to life after war. "He had nightmares," Helton says. "He told me, 'I don't know how to turn it all off.'"

Army care, particularly at Fort Carson, she says, should be investigated. But it seems that nobody cares. "It's hard to get people involved when you are fighting an Army," Helton says. "The Army said it would be there for my son in his time of need. But they weren't. His life is truly a great loss."

"You're a pussy and a scared little kid"

John Needham returned from Iraq, suffering from combat stress. If he had received proper care, would he be standing trial for murder?

By Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin

Feb. 12, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Fellow soldiers in Iraq called John Wiley Needham "Needhammer" for his toughness. They also saw him as somehow charmed, because the tall blond Army private from Southern California always seemed to be just far enough away from danger. People died next to Needham; Needham survived.

But "Needhammer" was not indestructible after all. He struggled with the aftereffects of the explosions he'd dodged. He survived a suicide attempt while in Iraq, and, after being shipped out of the country in 2007, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury. He took so many prescription meds he could barely hold his head up. According to Needham's father, Mike, the Army's response to the soldier's problems was punishment rather than treatment.

Last year, just weeks after his discharge, he allegedly beat 19-year-old aspiring model Jacqwelyn Villagomez to death in his California condo.

A Salon investigation has identified several trends involving Fort Carson soldiers who became homicidal. There are failures by healthcare workers and commanders to provide proper care to soldiers struggling with hidden wounds such as PTSD and brain injuries. There is a tendency to overmedicate soldiers struggling with stress or other injuries. Behind it all is an Army culture that punishes problematic soldiers instead of aiding them.

Needham is one of at least 13 current or former Fort Carson soldiers to serve in Iraq and then be convicted, accused or linked to a murder in the past four years. Victims like Villagomez who died at the hands of Fort Carson-based soldiers might be alive today if the Army had played closer attention to their mental state, providing necessary healthcare. In another story in the "Coming Home" series that will be published tomorrow, Salon details the cases of several soldiers involved in homicides whose preexisting problems raise the question of whether they should ever have worn a uniform. The story of John Needham, however, is the story of a young man who seemed stable and unscarred until he had driven down too many bomb-laden roads in Iraq.

In 2006, Needham was a happy-go-lucky house-painter with a friendly smile, 6-foot-2 and a sturdy 210 pounds. The 23-year-old entered surfing competitions, played golf, wrote songs on his guitar and dabbled in painting pictures. In his family, he was the funny guy. "John was so full of life," says his father, Mike Needham.

He was also a patriot who, like his dad before him, enlisted in the Army. In October 2006, not long after basic training, John Needham was sent to Iraq. He was first attached to 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, patrolling a sector in Baghdad rife with insurgents.

Needham saw some action, but he seemed to be holding up. By January 2007, he even got to go home. The Army was preparing for the troop surge and Needham was told that if he didn't take leave, he might not get another chance. So he went back to San Clemente, Calif., spending time with his family and riding the waves.

In photos from his leave, Needham is smiling. Yet when the camera wasn't aimed at him, his father says, John was shaky. But it didn't appear to be a big deal. Just some jitters. Needham seemed to be coping.

Two weeks later, Needham returned to Iraq and then in March or April was reassigned to the Fort Carson-based 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry. With the 2-12, he patrolled al-Dora, a Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad.

It was a violent area. In June, Needham and a group of soldiers stopped a car. Inside sat two suspected insurgents. Needham approached with his rifle in the "low and ready" position, aiming it at the face of one of the men, just in case. Needham ordered one of the men to get out.

As the man slid out, Needham noticed he was holding a grenade. The pin had been pulled.

"Grenade!" Needham shouted.

Then he pulled the trigger of his rifle, hitting the insurgent several times in the chest and finally in the head. As the man went down, the grenade rolled toward Needham, who was running to his Humvee.

"The explosion at such a close range was incredible," Needham wrote to his father in an e-mail following the incident. It briefly knocked him out.

He would receive an Army Commendation Medal for actions to save his comrades and a Purple Heart because shrapnel entered his legs, too deep to be removed. He would also begin to suffer from chronic back pain.

While Needham patrolled al-Dora with the 2-12, improvised-explosive devices were an ongoing threat. He brought home photos from the spring and summer of 2007 that showed the gore he saw with the 2-12. One picture showed a dead body, still dressed in traditional Iraqi clothing, with a rotting skull for a head. Another picture showed an Iraqi with the top part of his head blown off, covered in blood, eyes open, his body placed in a black bag alongside his brains.

Much later, after Needham had left Iraq and was undergoing medical evaluation, one of his commanding officers in Iraq would assure the evaluators that during his combat tour Needham had seen the sorts of things that wound minds. Needham, wrote Capt. Jim Keirsey in a March 2008 e-mail, "encounter[ed] and witness[ed] situations that may contribute to" PTSD. "Every soldier in the unit saw civilians injured by road side bombs, dead bodies from civilians killed from sectarian strife, and most significantly, every soldier patrolled daily under the threat of injury or death" from an improvised-explosive device.

While still in Iraq, Needham sought help. He wrote to his father that he saw a doctor and was given a small handful of Zoloft pills, which treat depression and anxiety, and Ambien for sleeplessness. It didn't seem to work. "I'm stressed out to the point of completely losing it," Needham later wrote in an e-mail to his father. "The squad leader brushed me off and said suck it up."

Needham began to self-medicate with large amounts of alcohol.

In a MySpace blog post in August of 2007, Needham was showing the strains of war. The post, typos included, reads: "I'm falling apart by the seams it seems the days here bleed into each other I have to find the will to live man I miss my brothers. These walls are caving in my despair wraps me in its web, I feel I'm sinking in, throw me a lifesaver throw me a life worth living. I'm apart of death I am death this is hard to admit but this shits getting old. I fall asleep and pray I die before I wake. The heat is unbearable I wish this experience to wash from me to melt away with the quickness it came, I yearn for the pacific to cool me to refresh every positive ion in me. I want it so bad I would trade a thousand waking moments to be there with you to just be near. The sreets here fill with filth and the stray dogs resemble the locals with their torn pride beaten and batter haggard life that falls into this abyss please tell me you miss me let me know you realized I was gone but not forgotten. With every wish and prayer and every meditation I get closer to home i close my eyes"

And on Sept. 18, 2007, he finally fell apart. As he and a comrade drowned their troubles in booze, Needham pulled out a gun and pointed it at his own head. The friend jumped at Needham.

"Blam!" The bullet hit the wall.

It was a suicide attempt, Needham's medical records say. A crowd gathered. Needham got into a fight. Things got confusing.

Needham seemed to need intervention more than ever now. But he was not sent for a psychiatric consultation. Instead, he was punished -- confined. "They keep me locked up in this room and if I need food or water I have to have two guards with me," he wrote to his father after 18 days.

John Needham was told that he could face charges and possible time in military prison for illegal discharge of a weapon.

It was then that Mike Needham realized that getting help for his son was going to be a struggle. "There were a number of things that prevented John from getting care, starting after his suicide attempt in Iraq."

Mike Needham reached Lt. Col. Stephen Michael, the 2-12’s top commander, via phone in Iraq. "After he tried to kill himself, they said he was a criminal. I couldn't believe it. I called his commander to try to say that John might be suffering from combat stress. I offered him literature. [Lt. Col. Michael] told me John deserved to be in military prison. When I argued, he said, 'Fuck off,' and hung up the phone."

Needham's father then reached out to Fort Carson's inspector general, a neutral arbiter of disputes. John finally got medical intervention. He was shipped to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, and then to the Washington, D.C., area, where he received care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Depression was added to his list of ills.

"I don't know what would have happened to him if I hadn't intervened," Mike Needham said. "They made me fight them just so that he could receive help. This is so backwards, I thought. He was entitled to decent care for everything he had already done for his country."

From Maryland, Needham was sent to Colorado. Salon was at Denver International Airport when Needham arrived in the middle of November 2007. There, Needham was greeted by Fort Carson commanders. Waiting in the wings was Georg-Andreas Pogany, then an investigator for the advocacy organization Veterans for America. At Mike Needham's behest, Pogany became an advocate for the Needham family, advising John Needham of his right to receive mental healthcare.

It was a tense time. Needham's father remembers calling Col. Kelly A. Wolgast, the nurse who commands Evans hospital at Fort Carson. He wanted to know why his son was on 12 medications. He was worried about the charges his son faced, although they never came to fruition. He just wanted assurances that his son would get the best care available.

"She just said that care at Evans was fine when I was telling her what happened to my son," Mike Needham said. "It was like she wasn't listening."

While at Fort Carson, Needham, advised by Pogany, kept notes about his treatment. On Nov. 16, 2007, Needham, still wondering if he'd face charges stemming from his suicide attempt in Iraq, wrote in black pen that he felt drowsy and laid his head on a desk. According to Needham's notes, a staff sergeant found him there and yelled, "This is no time to sleep." The sergeant then threatened Needham, saying "I will break your fucking face." Needham told the sergeant to go ahead. The sergeant closed in, inches from Needham's face, and "called me a pussy and a scared little kid," Needham wrote.

Weeks later, during a visit with his family in California, Needham reinjured his back. He was brought to Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and then received an official transfer from Fort Carson to the medical center.

Once with the Army’s warrior transition unit at the medical center, Needham had trouble meeting the Army's standards. Needham was charged with "patterns of misconduct" for failing to appear in formation, insubordination to superiors, and other problems. To Mike Needham, it seemed like the Army, which had acknowledged that John had PTSD, was now punishing his son for displaying the symptoms.

Nonetheless, on July 14, 2008, Needham received an honorable discharge.

Then the real headache began. The Army's disability ratings system, which assigns percentages to gauge a soldier's level of disability on a scale of zero to 100 percent, gave Needham a 20 percent rating for his back and just 10 percent for his PTSD, according to his medical records.

By law, Needham should have received 50 percentage points for PTSD alone. The difference in scores is an important detail, one that might have saved Villagomez. If Needham had received a total score of 50 on the disability scale -- which a PTSD diagnosis by itself should've guaranteed -- he could have received personalized support for his day-to-day issues, whether psychological, physical, financial or career. He also would be guaranteed lifetime military health benefits. With 10 points for PTSD and only 30 overall, he didn’t get the one-on-one attention he needed to transition back to civilian life.

At one point he freaked out, "naked, whimpering," his father says. "But we couldn't get him everything he needed psychiatrically."

Less than two months after his discharge, on Sept. 1, 2008, Needham clashed with Villagomez in his San Clemente condo, according to the Orange County District Attorney's Office. It began when Villagomez physically fought with another woman in the residence. Needham broke up the fight, calling 911 to report it. The woman left, but Villagomez stayed with Needham.

When officers arrived, Needham allegedly attacked them at his door while nude and drunk. Officers subdued the 25-year-old with a Taser.

They discovered Villagomez unconscious, severely beaten and barely breathing. Rescuers rushed her to the hospital, but they were too late.

"We believe what happened was he had a flashback and lost control," Needham's father says. "Something triggered it, as if he felt he was back in Iraq and being attacked."

Needham isn't the only soldier to be discharged with a PTSD rating lower than the 50 points that the law requires for full benefits, according to a class-action lawsuit by the National Veterans Legal Services Program. The independent nonprofit, which fights to see that the nation's 25 million military personnel and veterans receive benefits to which they are entitled, alleges that "thousands" of Iraq war veterans with PTSD are currently being denied care through Veterans Affairs because they were discharged with illegal PTSD ratings. The Army recently acknowledged the law in an Oct. 14, 2008, Defense Department directive, ordering that soldiers discharged with PTSD receive the proper rating.

Bart Stichman, a co-executive director for NVLSP, wasn't surprised to hear about problems at Fort Carson, saying his office is aware of them.

"Untreated post-traumatic stress disorder is bound to create bad behavior," Stichman said. "Often what happens is if soldiers can't find help, they medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs and it leads to problems."

Col. Wolgast of Evans hospital declined to comment on Needham's case -- or any others -- citing medical privacy laws. Maj. Gen. Mark Graham assembled a task force late last year to explore an unspecified number of cases, many of which have shocked Colorado Springs. The task force is delving into all the aspects of the soldier's histories -- "not just healthcare," said Wolgast, who is also a member.

"There is no evidence that we find that anything is a trend right now for those soldiers," she added.

Asked whether it is appropriate for commanders to downplay or ignore the possible hidden wounds of war, such as PTSD, Wolgast said no, and doesn't see it as a problem among Fort Carson's troops. "I don't think anyone is out to maliciously go after a soldier. I don't believe that at all."

She added, however, that if allegations that soldiers with mental injuries were mistreated by commanders proved true, the Army would then "clearly help that young leader understand a better way of going about taking care of that soldier."

While Wolgast declines to link soldier healthcare and violent crimes to PTSD, Sheilagh McAteer, a Colorado public defender and a member of a federal Health and Human Services task force exploring ways to divert combat veterans who resort to crime, sees compelling links.

McAteer says soldiers returning home after traumatic war experiences are struggling with violence. Some are winding up in prison and Army officials need to wake up and recognize the problem, she adds.

So far, though, the Army is "refusing to take responsibility," McAteer says. "That's a problem."

John Needham is now sitting in the Orange County Jail, awaiting trial for murder. He has pleaded not guilty. Bail has been set at $1 million. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for next month. Salon's attempts to reach Needham in jail were unsuccessful.

"I will break your f---ing face"

A written statement from John Needham, who suffers from PTSD, describing an encounter with an officer at Fort Carson.

By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna

Feb. 12, 2009 | Editor's note: After John Needham was diagnosed with PTSD in 2007, he was sent to Fort Carson. An advocate advised him to keep notes on how he was treated while at Fort Carson. In the document below, Needham describes what happened when his medications caused him to fall asleep on a desk. On the next page are photos of Needham in Iraq, as well as a photo of his return to Colorado.


Needham in his Humvee in Iraq around August 2007, a month prior to his suicide attempt.

Needham on patrol in Iraq.

Needham on patrol in Iraq.

After being diagnosed with PTSD, John Needham was sent back to the U.S., and eventually to Fort Carson. He was greeted at Denver International Airport by Georg-Andreas Pogany, at the time an investigator for the advocacy organization Veterans for America. [Photo by Michael de Yoanna]

"That young man never should have come into the Army"

Kenneth Eastridge had PTSD before he ever donned a uniform or did two tours of duty in Iraq. Now he's in prison for his part in the murder of a fellow soldier.

By Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin

Kenneth Eastridge

Michael de Yoanna

Kenneth Eastridge is being held at Kit Carson Correctional Facility in Burlington, Colo.

Feb. 13, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Late on the night of March 11, 2006, Kenneth Eastridge got in a fight with his girlfriend. It ended with his arrest for a felony.

The Kentucky native, an Army soldier stationed at Fort Carson, between deployments in Iraq, had fallen asleep after drinking when his girlfriend began to pound on his apartment door. She wanted inside, and she wanted to talk.

Eastridge responded with a string of obscenities and then flung the door open. He pointed a loaded pistol at his girlfriend. She looked at him like he was crazy, then turned and ran. Eastridge didn't fire. He stood motionless, stunned by his own reaction.

Eastridge recounts the episode from a gray plastic table inside Kit Carson Correctional Center, an island of concrete and razor wire in eastern Colorado's flat ocean of wheat. Now 25, he admits that by the time of his arrest in 2006 for felony menacing, he was already a "runaway train." But the train would keep going for another year, through a second deployment to Iraq, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, and then the death of a fellow soldier. Eastridge is among 13 current or former Fort Carson soldiers to return from the Iraq war and then be accused or convicted of involvement in murder since 2005.

Eastridge may be unique among the soldiers whose cases have been discussed in the "Coming Home" series in that he may well have had PTSD before he ever entered the military. In previous articles in the series, Salon has discussed what happens to soldiers who develop PTSD during combat and then do harm to themselves and others. In a second article published today, we describe the case of a man whom Army doctors identified as having a psychological disorder prior to his deployment, who then was deployed anyway, only to return to the States and allegedly kill someone. With Kenneth Eastridge, the Army knew what it was getting before he entered basic training -- before he ever donned a uniform. The Army may have exacerbated Eastridge's preexisting condition by sending him into combat. Once he had been to Iraq, twice, and was diagnosed with PTSD yet again, the Army was done with him. That's when he was loosed on the public, with tragic consequences.

When Kenneth Eastridge was 12 years old in Louisville, Ky., he killed one of his friends. As a child, he spent long hours at home unsupervised, and he liked to take out his father's guns and look at them, pretending to shoot. As his friend Billy Bowman sat in a chair playing a video game on May 7, 1996, Eastridge fumbled with an antique shotgun and pulled the trigger. Bowman was hit in the chest and died instantly. There was lots of blood.

Eastridge, who says the shooting was an accident, pleaded guilty to reckless homicide. According to court records that would later be cited by his defense attorney in Colorado, Eastridge was diagnosed with PTSD after the shooting. He was convicted of reckless homicide; as a condition of his sentence, he was ordered to see a counselor.

It was difficult being known as the kid who had killed his friend. Eastridge dropped out of high school. He saw the Army as a brass ring -- a way to make something of himself. In 2003, at age 19, he persuaded the Army to sign a waiver allowing him in despite his juvenile record. Asked about Eastridge's waiver, and whether that waiver in any way also acknowledged a preexisting diagnosis of PTSD, Lt. Col. George Wright of Army public affairs at the Pentagon declined to comment. "Army practice," said Wright, "is to not discuss the specifics of waivers [for soldiers]. Any medical diagnosis of any condition is protected."

Once in the Army, Eastridge found an organization that seemed vastly different from the proud force portrayed in TV commercials. The Army might be where some patriots enlist to serve America, but to Eastridge and soldiers like him, the Army was simply a good job.

It wasn't just "hero kids" bound for college, he says. It was also gangbangers and thugs. Kit Carson prison, he adds, is "like kiddie camp compared to the Army."

He holds up his crooked finger, misshapen during a fight with other soldiers. Some soldiers blow off steam by flailing, "bare-knuckle, smashing each other, tearing the whole room apart," he says.

In August 2004, Eastridge, then stationed in South Korea, went to Iraq for the first time. He was a gunner in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. A pre-deployment health assessment did not identify any major issues.

He spent a rough year in Habbaniya, Iraq. Friends died, including a trusted sergeant. Then, on Feb. 11, 2005, he nearly lost his own life. A bomb exploded under his Humvee, throwing him from the vehicle.

In the days afterward, Eastridge claims, fluid leaked from his ear. The noise hurt his ear for a while, and he sometimes found it hard to remember things, even to think. But although he'd receive a Purple Heart, he would never get to see a brain expert, say his attorneys, citing his medical records. Nor would Eastridge get a CT scan or an MRI. He was treated only for an injury to his leg and placed on crutches and light duty for several weeks before being returned to combat.

When Eastridge returned from Iraq in the summer of 2005 and was stationed at Fort Carson, he received a post-deployment health assessment. In the Aug. 2, 2005, evaluation, he complained of issues consistent with someone suffering the aftereffects of an explosion: dizziness, ringing in his ears, memory problems. "These are issues that are related to a traumatic brain injury," said Sheilagh McAteer, the Colorado public defender who would wind up representing him several years later.

But the Army didn't catch it. Eastridge was cleared for redeployment without limitations, according to Army documents cited by McAteer.

While not as alien as Iraq, Colorado Springs was unfamiliar territory to Eastridge, since he and members of the 2-12 had served in South Korea prior to Iraq. But Eastridge quickly found he enjoyed the crisp air and awesome view of Pikes Peak. It felt good. It had been a while since he was able to let his guard down.

Yet he was having trouble relaxing, in part because he felt the Army wouldn't let him. Commanders, at least as he saw it, were nitpicking his every flaw. Even small things, like having to shine his boots, got on his nerves. And his unit was training hard for a return to Iraq, spending weeks at a time in field exercises.

"Everybody was getting all stressed out," Eastridge says. "People were going AWOL [absent without leave], taking drugs."

The rigorous training, which often afforded only weekends off, kept him away from his support network of friends and family. Eastridge says his mind was mired in the heat and carnage of Iraq, and his dreams were reruns of explosions, screams and blood.

Loud noises, such as the sound of a car backfiring, could make his heart jump. After watching action movies, he'd get excited, dominating conversations, his mouth dry, the words racing out.

He also hid weapons around the house. It made him feel safe. He kept an assault rifle hidden under the couch.

It's not something many people would understand, Eastridge says, but the Army drilled into him the idea that he would be helpless without a gun. Moreover, that was exactly how he felt after his Humvee was hit in Iraq as he waited under cover for the medics to arrive.

"Even when you're wounded and you're blown up and you can't think of anything and you're bleeding all over the place, you're thinking, 'Where is my gun at?' because you're naked," he says. "You have no way to defend yourself. You feel terrified, even in the United States."

Eastridge says that the Army flipped a switch inside him that he could not turn off alone.

"It's like they try to brainwash you in basic training, and that's really what they do," Eastridge says. "Like during bayonet training, we'll be stabbing a big dummy and they'll say, 'What makes the grass grow?' and we would say, 'Blood! Blood! Blood!' as we're stabbing the dummy … They just pound it into your head and pound it into your head and pound it into your head to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, and they take you over there and they turn you loose and you kill and kill and kill and kill and kill, and they bring you back here and you're supposed to turn it off for a year?"

Eastridge began to spiral out of control.

With so much training and so little down time between the long deployments, Eastridge didn't think it was a good idea to get too comfortable in Colorado Springs, appealing as it seemed. Yet he also wanted to forget about everything, especially the Army. So he drank heavily. He squandered his savings -- thousands of dollars -- at local bars. He pulled a gun on his girlfriend and found himself facing felony charges.

And at some point between his first deployment and his second, Eastridge got some tattoos. One is in memory of a buddy who died in Iraq. Another is far scarier. It appears to be a Nazi-style "SS" design, although Eastridge insists it's not. It's just another tattoo, he says: "It's anti-establishment." He seems confused about its meaning. Despite saying on his MySpace page that he wants to meet Hitler (and Jesus, and "just you whatever"), and apparently giving a white supremacist salute on his MySpace page, Eastridge tries to tell Salon that the twin lightning bolts are "Russian."

In late 2006, as his unit prepared to deploy to Iraq for a second tour, Eastridge faced a dilemma. He was supposed to go overseas, but he was also supposed to go to court.

Eastridge claims he spoke to someone in the judge advocate general's office and to his superior in the 2-12, Staff Sgt. James Naughton, about what he should do. He says he told them he faced charges in Colorado. He says they told him he was in trouble either way. Naughton, he claims, said he had two choices: Go to Iraq or be punished for desertion.

"Everybody hates that guy," Eastridge says. "They literally call him the devil. He’s like the worst person I ever met in my life."

Naughton, now retired in Colorado Springs, initially declined to comment, explaining that he gives "no interviews whatsoever" regarding Eastridge's time in the Army. However, asked to comment on Eastridge's specific allegation that Naughton made him deploy to Iraq although he was accused of a felony, Naughton said, "Everything Kenneth Eastridge says can absolutely be put under scrutiny."

Naughton added, "That young man never should have come into the Army."

Eastridge knew that if he left, a judge would issue a warrant for his arrest, but he was broke and borrowing money. So he decided to go, figuring that he could build up his savings while he was fighting in the war and then use the money to resolve his legal issues when he returned.

In deploying Eastridge, who was facing a felony charge, the Army broke its own rules, says McAteer, Eastridge's attorney. "They ignored the fact that he had an active criminal case," she says, adding that Eastridge could have faced a range of military disciplinary actions at that point, including discharge.

Instead, Eastridge was soon on patrol again, this time south of Baghdad, shooting cats -- "Iraqi pussy" -- as they ran wild on the junked-out landscape. The good times, he says, were the days like those, when he was able to focus on the one thing he was always good at -- firing his rifle. He shot the messenger pigeons that Iraqi insurgents used, grinning as he picked them off.

He also kept nonregulation foreign AK-47 assault rifles that he should have turned in. "I would use them for suppressive fire," he says, motioning with his arms as if he's shooting one out of a Humvee window.

He says he killed "lots" of Iraqi insurgents but can't remember how many.

More of his comrades died, too. One of the worst days was June 28, 2007, when five soldiers with the 2-12 were ambushed on patrol south of Baghdad. A bomb detonated. Then a hail of insurgent machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire rained on them.

Soon Eastridge was finding it tough to sleep. He started popping Valium, even before going on patrols. He shirked duty by having sex with his new girlfriend, who was also a soldier. He also threatened superior officers. They were offenses that could get him kicked out of the Army, but Eastridge didn't care anymore.

And soon the Army soon caught up to him. He had been reselling some of the Valium, which he had obtained without a prescription, for a dollar a pop. Military prosecutors, he says, threatened to court-martial him on drug-dealing charges.

With the possibility of a long military prison sentence looming, Eastridge took a deal in a summary court-martial process. He'd serve 30 days in a military prison camp at Arifjan, Kuwait.

Though the sequence of events is unclear, it was apparently just prior to his stint in the brig that Eastridge was finally evaluated by Army care providers. By then his mental health and substance abuse issues had long been simmering. On August 24, 2007, he received a diagnosis of "chronic" PTSD. "My feeling is that he had problems for a long time and the Army failed over and over to recognize it," McAteer said.

For a month, Eastridge filled sandbags in the desert heat and began to envision a life outside the Army. Yet the Army was the only thing he knew, and he wasn't expecting much help from the Army after the trouble he caused. To be honest, he says, he didn't know what he'd do.

When his 30 days were up, the Army shipped him back to the States. When he and his girlfriend arrived under Army escort at the airport in Colorado in late September or early October 2007, they made a run for it as their escorts retrieved their luggage. Soon the two were at the Clarion Hotel in downtown Colorado Springs -- and AWOL.

There, Eastridge reestablished contact with one of his recently discharged war buddies, Louis Bressler, and a friend of Bressler's, a still-active Fort Carson soldier named Bruce Bastien. It wasn't so much a celebration as tense and strange, Eastridge says. Bressler and Bastien seemed easily angered, so he laughed along with them, even as they joked in a macabre way about plans to rob, even murder people. "They said, 'Did you ever want to kill someone?' I thought they were just kidding, but I guess they were serious," Eastridge says.

At the time, he had no idea that detectives in Colorado Springs were trying to determine who had killed Pfc. Robert James, a 23-year-old Fort Carson solider. Later, both Bressler and Bastien would admit in plea deals to playing a role in James' slaying, saying they stole $25 to $45 from him.

The idea of committing robberies resonated with Eastridge. He still needed money. There were sensational plans, including crashing a truck into a bank vault.

On Oct. 29, 2007, Eastridge hit the nighttime streets with Bressler and Bastien, prowling for prey. In the early-morning hours of Oct. 30, they made their first attempt. They succeeded only in terrifying their intended victim. The three targeted a downtown bar manager locking up at closing, stuffing a bank deposit bag under her coat. One of the men -- Eastridge says it was Bastien -- ran full speed at the woman's vehicle, but luckily she looked into her rearview mirror and sped away in horror, tires squealing.

The three would eventually find a victim that morning: Erica Ham. Bressler, Eastridge alleges, drove straight at her in the car, and struck her. The men then robbed and stabbed Ham; Eastridge admitted to Salon that he pointed a gun at Ham. He alleges (and statements from men incarcerated with Bastien support this contention) that Bastien was the one who wielded the knife. Ham survived by calling 911.

Eastridge says that the incident spooked him -- and that he saved Ham's life by grabbing the wheel to prevent Bressler from running her over as the trio made a getaway.

Eastridge returned to the Army. He didn't tell his commanders about the robbery. But, as he'd anticipated, his commanders informed him that a judge had issued a warrant for his arrest while he was in Iraq because he failed to appear in court to face the 2006 menacing charges involving his girlfriend.

Eastridge went to the county jail and spent nearly a month there before posting bond on Nov. 26. When he returned to the Army this time, he was told he would be discharged under "other than honorable" conditions and was warned never to set foot on the post again. As his attorney McAteer notes, Eastridge spent "a couple hours at Fort Carson and then was processed out."

The Army was done with Eastridge. Even though its medical personnel had diagnosed Eastridge with PTSD, the government was free of responsibility for his healthcare and would not provide other benefits, because he had not received an honorable discharge.

The Army was required, however, to give him a post-deployment health assessment to determine whether he was a threat to himself or to others. "There is no record of a post-deployment health assessment," McAteer says. "He was never given one. The Army released him without assessing his mental condition."

If he was found to have problems, the Army could have held him.

The Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- has repeatedly chided the military on the importance of the assessments. The office's most recent criticism came in a June 2008 report to U.S. House Armed Services Committee members. The office noted "continuing problems with the completion of pre- and post-deployment health assessments."

Days after his discharge from the Army, on Nov. 30, 2007 -- a Friday night -- Eastridge celebrated his release. He joined Bressler and Bastien at the Rendezvous Lounge. There, they met Spc. Kevin Shields, a Fort Carson soldier celebrating his 24th birthday.

In Eastridge's version of what happened after that, Bastien allegedly got into a dispute with other customers. He wanted a gun. Bressler offered his, but Bastien would have to retrieve the pistol from Bressler's car, which was parked back at Bastien's house. So joined by Shields, Bastien borrowed Bressler's keys and went to retrieve the gun.

By the time Bastien and Shields had returned, Eastridge and Bressler had moved to Rum Bay, a massive dance spot full of people. There, amid the pulsing music, Eastridge was in full party mode. He bought gimmicky shots in test tubes by the tray from waitresses.

The binging morphed into belligerence. Outside the bar, the men pushed their way down Tejon Street, a crowded stretch of street where bar- and restaurant-goers mingle, clashing with another group. One person in that group motioned as if concealing a gun.

So Bressler hustled to Bastien's Audi, slunk in, peeled out and screeched to a dramatic halt on Tejon. Eastridge, Bastien and Shields jumped in. Not long after, Bressler, driving lost on dark bungalow-lined roads, stopped and puked.

A fight soon erupted -- Bressler and Shields were going at it. Bressler hurled his fists clumsily. Shields threw Bressler against the car.

Then the men got back in. This time Bressler was in the back seat and Bastien was driving. Bressler was fuming after being humiliated, says Eastridge, also seated in the back. Bressler toyed with a knife, Eastridge claims, and then, as the music blared, asked for the gun. Shields, who sat in the front passenger seat, didn't seem to hear the request. He didn't notice Bastien reaching under the front seat to retrieve the gun and then holding it behind the seat, gently tapping it against the leather to get Bressler's attention. Eastridge saw the gun and gave it to Bressler. He says he didn't know what else to do.

Bressler then told Bastien to pull over so he could puke again.

When Shields got out of the car, a gunshot rang out. Eastridge looked up and saw Shields tense and then drop.

"Boom, boom, boom, boom." Bressler emptied the gun's bullets into Shields, Eastridge alleges. (As part of a plea agreement, Bastien was also set to say Bressler was the shooter but failed to do so in court. Bressler claims Bastien was the shooter. No one has fingered Eastridge.)

The trio sped off, Bastien at the wheel. They stopped to burn clothing with blood on it, Eastridge says, recalling Bressler gazing quietly into the flames, watching one boot burn while wearing the other.

Colorado Springs homicide investigators soon closed in. Eastridge eventually agreed to testify in the case in exchange for a lighter sentence. He pleaded guilty this November to accessory to murder, addressing other charges, including his 2006 menacing case. He received a 10-year sentence. Before Eastridge made his deal, his attorneys raised the issue of his PTSD diagnosis, hiring a doctor to conduct an evaluation. Dr. Laura Combs, a Veterans Affairs doctor in Denver, talked in her evaluation about how combat exacerbated Eastridge’s childhood disorder.

Bastien is serving 60 years. He was given a deal to testify against Bressler in exchange for guilty pleas to accessory to murder in Shields' death and conspiracy to commit murder in James' death. However, Bastien later refused to take the stand against Bressler, and prosecutors are now mulling whether to put him on trial.

In November, a jury was unable to conclude that Bressler had pulled the trigger on Shields. Instead, jurors found Bressler guilty of conspiracy to murder. Prosecutors then opted to seek a plea deal to resolve the murder of James and the assault of Ham. In all, Bressler, who will be formally sentenced in March, is expected to get 50 to 60 years.

Colorado Springs law enforcement officials declined to discuss the case until Bressler is sentenced.

Eastridge, who has already served a year, reckons he will be eligible for parole around 2012, depending on good behavior. He doesn't know what he's going to do with his life.

"My only job skills are military," he says.

Maybe he'll work in the oil fields or become a welder. He's not sure how his record will hinder his chances of finding a decent job. "I've thought about the French Foreign Legion," he offers.

He's also not receiving treatment for his PTSD in prison. He worries that if he sees a psychologist, it could delay his release date if ongoing problems are found: "Right now I just want to get out as fast as possible."

Can he find ways to prevent his life from spiraling out of control again? "I can't really say that I can," he says.

"Who I'd like to meet: Al Capone, Hitler"

On his MySpace page, Kenneth Eastridge expressed excitement to be leaving "the gay ass Army." Now he is in prison for involvement in a murder.

By Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin

Feb. 13, 2009 | On Dec. 1, 2007, Kenneth Eastridge, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by the Army before receiving an "other than honorable" discharge, was involved in the death of another soldier. He pleaded guilty in a Colorado courtoom to being an accessory to the murder of Spc. Kevin Shields. Below, see his MySpace Web site, in which he talks of wanting to meet Hitler. MySpace photos include Eastridge giving an apparent white power salute, brandishing weapons, and holding up some "Iraqi pussy" -- a dead cat. On the last page is a photo of the Humvee in which Eastridge was riding on Feb. 11, 2005, in Iraq. A bomb exploded under the vehicle, throwing him clear.

Kenneth Eastridge on Myspace

Kenneth Eastridge

Kenneth Eastridge

Kenneth Eastridge


Photo courtesy Sheilagh McAteer

"He hears sounds which seem to be voices"

The Army knew Cpl. Robert Marko might have psychological problems, but sent him to Iraq anyway. He is now awaiting trial for murder in Colorado.

By Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin

Feb. 13, 2009 | When Judilianna Lawrence missed school, her mother called the police. Then she checked her daughter's MySpace account. Within hours, sheriff's deputies were asking questions of Robert Hull Marko, a Fort Carson, Colo., Army soldier who fought in Iraq.

Lawrence's mother had discovered correspondence indicating that her daughter and Marko had planned to meet, and Marko piqued investigators' interest when he initially denied he knew Lawrence. His story kept changing during a chilly weekend in October 2008. Eventually, Marko admitted he knew the 19-year-old special education student, saying he was with her in the rugged terrain somewhere around Pikes Peak, west of Colorado Springs, Colo. He said he left her there.

By Monday, Oct. 13, on Marko's 21st birthday, he finally led deputies to a wooded area. There, investigators searched for and found Lawrence's body, her throat slashed. She had also been raped, investigators say.

Marko, of Decatur, Mich., a man with no prior criminal history, now sits in El Paso County jail in Colorado without bail, awaiting trial for murder. He also faces separate charges for allegedly sexually assaulting a 14-year-old runaway from a psychiatric facility, and for possessing child porn.

A Fort Carson-based Army corporal, Marko served a tour of duty in Iraq from January 2007 to February 2008. According to medical records obtained by Salon through a military official, Marko was deployed to Iraq even after he was found to be suffering from a psychological disturbance.

On Nov. 2, 2006, a military doctor named Susanne Franz prepared the document that appears on the next two pages. Questioned during his "predeployment assessment," Marko said he had problems sleeping, and recurrent nightmares. "Nightmares nightly since reading a disturbing book in 6th grade." Franz referred him for further psychological evaluation.

Four days later, Dr. Harry B. Rauch, a psychiatrist at Evans U.S. Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson, interviewed Marko. Dr. Rauch believed that his evaluation showed that Marko, who reported "hearing sounds which seem to be voices," had "schizotypal personality disorder." (See that document on Pages 4 and 5.)

The disorder is a socially isolating condition that experts say is characterized by peculiar beliefs and paranoid ideas. "Nightmares generally about fantasy worlds and wars" disturbed Marko, Rauch wrote. And though Rauch also identified Marko's history of "self-damaging behavior, generally accidental due to poor judgment and fascination with fire and exploding devices," Marko was found fit to fight in the war.

Rauch said that Marko's problems "may or may not result in some ultimate functional incapacity in the military." He released him "[without] limitations." The Army then seemed to leave it to Marko to determine whether he would seek to do anything about his personality disorder. Rauch wrote that Marko "declines follow up at present" but that Marko agreed to return to clinic if he suffered "any changes or deteriorations in thought or behavior patterns."

Through his attorney, Marko declined an interview for this story. His attorney, Sheilagh McAteer, also declined comment on the case.


Judilianna Lawrence

Judilianna Lawrence

Robert Hull Marko

Robert Hull Marko

Document 1

Document 2

Document 3

Document 4

Coming home: The conclusion

In the final article in Salon's series, we ask what President Obama will do about the rise of suicide and murder among U.S. soldiers returning from combat.

By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna

Feb. 14, 2009 | Two days after the election, the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, released a list of the 13 issues requiring "urgent attention and continuing oversight" from the new administration and Congress. Listen to any politician. Surf the Web. Open a newspaper. You can probably draw up a list yourself pretty quickly, given the recession, two wars and killer peanut butter.

After scanning the headlines, you probably would not jot down the first agenda item on the GAO list of issues "needing the attention of President-elect Obama and the 111th Congress." The first issue on their list: "Caring for Service Members."

Four years ago, Salon exposed inadequate mental healthcare at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, unraveling the first threads in what eventually became part of a national scandal. Today, the grind of multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan translates into scores of damaged soldiers coming home. The trend far outstrips the raft of good-sounding military programs -- seemingly invisible at some Army posts -- the Pentagon set up to help these desperate troops. Forget about moldy barracks or mouse droppings in the hallways. People are dying unnecessarily.

Over the past week, Salon has published a dozen stories and sidebars about the healthcare problems at just one Army post among the many Army installations worldwide, Fort Carson, Colo. Salon dug up 25 cases of suicide, prescription drug overdoses or murder involving Fort Carson-based soldiers since 2004. In-depth study of 10 of those cases exposed a string of preventable deaths. In most cases, deaths seemed avoidable if the Army better identified and then appropriately treated soldiers' combat stress or brain injuries from explosions. In others, the Army, under pressure to deploy more troops in Iraq, brought into the ranks mentally damaged soldiers and then sent them to war. After combat had exacerbated their preexisting problems, the Army set them loose on the streets with deadly consequences.

Untreated, combat stress can cause bad behavior -- insubordination, substance abuse, violent outbursts. The Army was quick to crack down on soldiers for misbehavior but showed little interest in figuring out the underlying cause. Our reporting suggests that saying there is a "stigma" in the Army associated with seeking mental healthcare is an understatement. Harassment or punishment of those soldiers who show signs of mental strain or "weakness" seems like a more accurate description. One mock official Army document at Fort Carson asked soldiers seeking mental health help to pick one of the following explanations for their "Hurt Feelings": "I am a pussy," "I am a queer," "I want my mommy." In that environment, some troops opted to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, making their problems worse.

We chose, whenever possible, to have our stories focus on the lives of individual soldiers, to illustrate the real-world, flesh-and-blood impact of inadequate care. Some examples: After the Army failed to diagnose or treat his post-traumatic stress disorder for two years after his return from Iraq, Pvt. Adam Lieberman swallowed an overdose of prescription drugs last October. He lived to tell about it -- though his mother had to clean up the suicide note he'd painted across his barracks wall so the Army wouldn't charge him with defacing public property. Pfc. Ryan Alderman suffered symptoms nearly identical to Lieberman's, but floundered in a similar predicament at Fort Carson for a year. He was found dead in the barracks of an overdose around the same time Lieberman made his suicide attempt. The Army allowed Staff Sgt. Chad Barrett to go back to Iraq on Christmas day in 2007, despite his PTSD and a previous suicide attempt. Barrett killed himself by downing some of his eight prescription drugs five weeks after arriving in Iraq.

Blond California surfer John Needham seemed mentally fit when he went to Iraq in late 2006. A year later he held a gun to his head as his PTSD took over. (A buddy grabbed the gun. The bullet hit a wall.) He and his family fought the Army for healthcare through the summer of 2008, when the Army broke its own rules and put him out without required benefits. A few weeks after his discharge, he allegedly beat to death his girlfriend, 19-year-old aspiring model Jacqwelyn Villagomez. The Army brought into the ranks two mentally damaged soldiers, Kenneth Eastridge and Robert Marko. Though the Army knew of their problems, both went to Iraq anyway, further damaging their minds or fulfilling their violent delusions. Eastridge was later an accessory to murder. Marko faces murder charges.

Since the Army surgeon general runs medical care at all Army posts, it is likely that the care at Fort Carson is representative of the care experienced by Army personnel everywhere. So are the problems. Nearly 300,000, or 20 percent, of military service members who returned from Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD, major depression or possible traumatic brain injury, according to a RAND Corp. study last year.

Throughout all of our reporting, we are unaware of any instance of the Army holding anyone accountable in any way -- from a soldier's first sergeant up to the Army surgeon general -- for any of the missteps documented in our articles.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala served on a presidential commission, along with former Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, to formulate solutions to the problems made famous at Walter Reed. Their July 2007 report heavily emphasized better diagnosis and treatment of invisible wounds like PTSD and brain injuries.

Dole and Shalala can correctly identify the problems, but a commission can't make the Army do much. "If one person is dying from something that is preventable, then we haven't gotten it right," Shalala told Salon in a telephone interview.

When asked what she would tell President Obama if given the chance, she responded, "I'd tell him to get ready. We've got a nightmarish situation."

"The problem with the pullout [of troops from Iraq] is not what it will do to Iraq, but what it will do to the United States of America if we are not ready with teams to absorb not simply these young men and women into our society and into our economy, but absorb them into our healthcare system with appropriate and sensitive treatment," she said. "One of the things we had better think about is if we are going to bring a bunch of troops back pretty quickly, we had better be ready for it." She also heavily emphasized preventing troubled soldiers from going to war in the first place.

The Army suffers no shortage of initiatives that, at least on paper, have improved care for soldiers suffering combat stress. "We've really tried to enhance our access to care," Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's lead psychiatrist, said in a telephone interview.

The Pentagon set up a 24-7 hot line for struggling soldiers to arrange counseling and established a new program, called RESPECT-Mil, to better incorporate mental health treatment into primary care. Since the spring of 2007, Ritchie says, the Army has hired 250 new mental health providers through civilian contracts and more than 40 marriage and family therapists. Another new policy, started in the spring of 2008, means mental health counseling is no longer supposed to muss up a soldier's security clearance. Two memos from the Army surgeon general in 2007 and 2008 also aim to encourage more accurate post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses.

Certainly the programs saved somebody. We've met soldiers who called that 24-hour hotline and received vital help. Army officials, however, struggle to explain the obvious gap between the well-meaning new programs and the pattern of soldiers at Fort Carson battling for medical treatment and suffering something akin to harassment from some superiors for seeking help in the first place.

Army officials complained they can't discuss individual cases without running afoul of privacy rules. In our search for answers, we were often left with platitudes. "We continue to reach out, to search for methods, practices and procedures to help our soldiers," the commander of the Army hospital at Fort Carson, Col. Kelly Wolgast, said in an interview at her office. "Clearly we are not there yet with making it perfect because we've had some losses and we've had some soldiers who have done some behaviors that are not accepted in our society."

Top Army officials are in lockstep in saying that they are largely vexed about why things keep getting worse. Late last month the Army unveiled the most frightening Army suicide statistics in three decades. The Army says 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008 with another 15 still under investigation. "Why do the numbers keep going up?" Army Secretary Pete Geren asked at a Jan. 29 Pentagon press conference. "We can't tell you." The Army said a new $50 million study might crack the mystery.

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