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A growing concern 

With Congress casting an eye, Fort Carson confirms a huge jump in PTSD cases

click to enlarge Purple Heart recipient Pvt. Tyler Jennings is facing a - court martial as a result of drug use and misconduct - possibly symptomatic of his post-traumatic stress - disorder. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Purple Heart recipient Pvt. Tyler Jennings is facing a court martial as a result of drug use and misconduct possibly symptomatic of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the same time members of Congress are pushing for an investigation into the Army's treatment of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, the number of PTSD cases is exploding at Fort Carson.

The post is on track for a 466 percent increase in PTSD cases as compared to 2003, when the Iraq war began, according to a projection by Col. Steve Knorr, the post's chief of behavioral health.

In 2003, Fort Carson identified 85 PTSD cases. As of mid-September, the post had 604 cases in 2006. The post anticipates a year-end total of 628 cases.

Lt. Col. David Johnson says multiple deployments have helped the cases to mushroom. And a Fort Carson document obtained by the Independent and verified by Johnson theorizes that the post's efforts to identify PTSD in troops is another factor.

"In many ways, this exponential increase in PTSD diagnosis [sic] demonstrates that soldiers are coming forward to receive care, and are being welcomed in the process," Knorr wrote in the document.

Asking questions

Yet at least one dozen of the post's current and former soldiers disagree.

Some have been kicked out of the Army for discipline problems they connect to their difficulty coping with stress resulting from combat.

Several soldiers told such stories to National Public Radio in a special report aired last month. The Independent broke the story four months earlier in a collaborative investigation with the "CBS Evening News" ("Pattern of misconduct," csindy.com/csindy/2006-07-13/cover.html).

In August, citing "recent reports" and concerns about the provision of mental health throughout the military, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., called for a joint hearing by the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, on which he sits, and the Senate Armed Services Committee. With Democrats taking control of the Senate in January, Salazar will renew the call, although he is no longer assigned to a military committee, says Salazar spokesman Cody Wertz.

Meanwhile, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Christopher Bond, R-Mo., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., want the Pentagon to investigate the Fort Carson allegations.

Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith says William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, is "very concerned" about the treatment of soldiers at the post. She says Winken-werder has directed Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley to examine the treatment of Fort Carson soldiers with PTSD, and to submit a report.

Smith adds, however, that "no military in the history of the world has done more to identify, evaluate, prevent and treat the mental health needs and concerns of its personnel."

Ends of the spectrum

Fort Carson's Johnson maintains any inquiry would conclude that care at the post is top-notch.

"We think we've got it right," Johnson says. "We think we have the standard for mental health and health care."

To illustrate the point, the post made available Staff Sgt. Justin Reyes, whom last month was diagnosed with chronic PTSD resulting from his year of service in Iraq.

When Reyes returned to post in the summer of 2005, he initially didn't consider his hyper-vigilance, difficulty sleeping and fear of crowds a problem. But after a close friend died recently in Iraq, the problems worsened, he says.

click to enlarge db57_news-23320.gif

He walked into a mental health clinic for help.

"My chain of command was extremely supportive," says Reyes. "I had a brief hospitalization, and my commander actually stopped by just about every day, just to check on how I was doing and to check on my care."

The 26-year-old, a soldier for about seven years, is currently undergoing comprehensive medical analysis to determine whether his PTSD justifies medical retirement.

If formally retired with an honorable discharge, Reyes would receive lasting health benefits to treat his PTSD, as well as federal money for college.

But other soldiers with the disorder interviewed by the Independent lost or could lose such benefits. The difference for such soldiers is that they failed to complete assigned duties, were unkempt or got caught abusing drugs or alcohol all probable symptoms of PTSD, according to soldiers' therapists.

Months after Tyler Jennings, a 24-year-old Purple Heart recipient, returned from Iraq in mid-2005, he took drugs and drank liquor to try to forget the gory images he witnessed, including those of a fellow soldier shooting himself in front of the platoon.

After crafting a noose and contemplating suicide, Jennings sought help.

But he says he didn't get it. Instead, he faced discharge for "patterns of misconduct" for his behavior. Fort Carson has since changed tack, pursuing a court martial on an array of charges that Jennings was told could result in a lengthy prison sentence.

"They charged me with being AWOL for the day I admitted myself to the hospital," Jennings alleged in an interview earlier this week.

He now refuses treatment at Fort Carson, trusting instead an outside therapist who is working for free.

Asked whether he thought it fair that PTSD-diagnosed soldiers with disciplinary problems face punishment and a loss of the benefits they earned, Reyes says the soldiers must first be accountable for their actions.

"You're still a soldier," Reyes says. "There's a right way to do things. Self-medicating, or doing whatever they were doing, is not right for any soldier, no matter what."

Given the upsurge in PTSD cases, it would appear that Fort Carson's mental health staff, tasked with tending to a range of other problems besides PTSD, is too small.

Since 2003, Fort Carson's combined average annual number of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and substance-abuse counselors has risen from 23.5 to 32, according to data obtained by the Independent. That 36 percent increase, as of October, appears to pale in comparison to the 466 percent increase in PTSD cases.

Yet the post maintains it is prepared to handle every case, citing its current ratio of six psychiatrists to roughly 17,000 soldiers. In the civilian U.S., the ratio is one psychiatrist to every 16,600 people, Knorr stated in documents.

He did not predict the number of cases the post will see in 2007, when the first of hundreds of front-line soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division arrive via Fort Hood, Texas.

deyoanna@csindy.com


Update

In a profile that accompanied "Pattern of misconduct" (cover story, July 13, 2006), Alex Orum, a former soldier diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, said he served in Iraq for a year. Recently obtained documents, however, indicate he served in the country for three months, ending in late July 2005. This discrepancy means that the evolution of his friendship with Staff Sgt. Michael Shackelford could not have transpired as originally reported.

However, a thorough rechecking of his and other accounts, and all available documentation, corroborates other important elements of his story, including his receipt of a Certificate of Achievement from the Army for his time as a S.A.W. gunner, as well as his PTSD diagnosis.

deyoanna@csindy.com

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