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A blind spot 

Former soldier bristles at news of sergeant's death at Walter Reed

click to enlarge Adam Kaplan, pictured with his parents, no longer sees - visions of Staff Sgt. William Latham. But, he says, I dont - want to know any of the details regarding Lathams - reported mistreatment in Army care. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Adam Kaplan, pictured with his parents, no longer sees visions of Staff Sgt. William Latham. But, he says, I dont want to know any of the details regarding Lathams reported mistreatment in Army care.

Adam Kaplan doesn't have to blame himself anymore.

But the former Fort Carson soldier still struggles with emotions surrounding the death of Staff Sgt. William Latham.

U.S. Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., said Latham lost his life following a therapist's mistake at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The revelation, made during a hearing late last week, contradicted the Defense Department's 2003 account that Latham died as a result "of his wounds" during a raid on a suspected arms cache in Iraq.

Because his grenade generated the shrapnel that struck Latham in the head, Kaplan felt somehow responsible for his sergeant's death. He later developed post-traumatic stress disorder and was haunted by hallucinations of Latham, eventually turning to drugs to make the visions go away.

"I don't want to know any of the details about Sgt. Latham," Kaplan said of the news earlier this week at his home in Broomfield, northwest of Denver.

He says thoughts of the sergeant stir up difficult thoughts he prefers not to express. But, he adds, "I'm in a better place now."

'A black eye'

In the wake of Young's allegations, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Army's surgeon general, became the third top official to step down amid reports that soldiers received poor treatment amid squalid conditions at Walter Reed, supposedly the Army's premier health facility.

Kiley, who oversaw Walter Reed at the time of Latham's death, said his retirement would be in the "best interest of the Army," letting leaders focus on improving care for soldiers everywhere, according to an Army statement.

Kiley had visited Fort Carson in late January as co-chair of the Defense Department's Task Force on Mental Health, charged with making recommendations to improve Army mental care in coming months.

At least a dozen Iraq veterans from Fort Carson with PTSD, including Kaplan, have alleged they were kicked out of the Army for disciplinary issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse, which therapists say are symptoms of the disorder (see "Mind game," csindy.com/csindy/2006-04-13/cover.html).

"I think we've learned some lessons out of that from here and from some other locations," Kiley said during his January visit.

Kiley is now off the task force, according to an e-mail from task force executive secretary Thomas J. Burke.

Vice Admiral Donald C. Arthur, the Navy's surgeon general, will replace Kiley. The task force's timeline appears intact, said a Defense Department spokesman, asking not to be named.

Young reluctantly told Latham's story last week at a defense appropriations hearing on Walter Reed.

"Gen. Kiley, we did not go public with these concerns because we did not want to undermine the confidence of the patients and their families and give the Army a black eye while fighting a war," Young said in a transcript posted by rawstory.com.

Young hoped the Army would fix problems, but said it had failed.

On May 19, 2003, Latham, a soldier in the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, was injured after Kaplan launched a grenade at the doors protecting a suspected arms warehouse in Ar Ramadi.

Shrapnel from the explosion hit Kaplan in his protective vest and struck Latham in the head.

"I'll never forget the sound he made or the blood," Kaplan said this week.

Latham was taken to Walter Reed and needed emergency surgery to repair a brain aneurysm that threatened to kill him, Young said.

Yet Young and his wife, Beverly, volunteers at Walter Reed, were concerned by an apparently faulty tube inserted in Latham's brain. They sought to transfer Latham to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.

Walter Reed denied the move, stating it was too risky, Young said.

Later, a Walter Reed therapist arrived to give Latham "respiratory therapy," over the concerns of Latham's wife. The therapist told her that no aneurysm was indicated on Latham's medical chart and then pounded on Latham's back, Young said.

"... it was at that point, huge amounts of blood came shooting out of that tube, out of his brain," Young said.

Latham, 29, died within days, on June 18, 2003, leaving behind his wife and three children.

Beginning to fight

When Kaplan returned to Fort Carson, he took drugs, he says as "self-medication" for untreated PTSD stemming from uncontrollable visions of Latham and feelings of panic. He was convicted on drug charges and sent to Fort Lewis military prison in Washington state for about a year.

Kaplan's mother, Liz Kaplan, who was denied the opportunity to participate in closed-door sessions with families at the post when Kiley visited, was outraged to learn of Young's statements. If information about Latham's treatment at Walter Reed had come earlier, she says, it might have helped her son cope better.

"Maybe he wouldn't have had the problems he did," she says. "The Army killed two soldiers that day, one in body and one in spirit."

She added that a combat stress team in Iraq and post commanders missed chances to get her son care when he needed it most.

Now Kaplan, released from prison about 10 months ago, has begun to fight.

He has written to Fort Carson commander Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon in an effort to change his "bad conduct" status to one that will allow him to receive health benefits, including mental health care, from Veterans Affairs.

"I believe that if my chain of command had recognized the issue, or had been better trained to deal with the real issues, I would have gotten treatment, and possibly still be in the Army proudly serving my country today," Kaplan wrote.

He has not heard back from Mixon.

The visions of Latham have stopped, Kaplan says, but some of the better memories of a sergeant he and other soldiers looked to for guidance haven't faded.

"Sgt. Latham always told it straight," Kaplan says, adding that he can't understand why Walter Reed didn't.

deyoanna@csindy.com

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