When Maj. Gen. Mark Graham took command at Fort Carson in September 2007, he inherited turmoil.
The Army and its Mountain Post were taking heat in the form of allegations from combat veterans, who said they were being punished, ignored or even discharged as they struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological traumas. The Army soon calmed that furor, largely thanks to Fort Carson rolling out the promise of enhanced screening to identify soldiers with PTSD symptoms.
Another issue, however, has flared: In 2008, a string of local homicides and other violence tied to combat veterans from a single 4th Infantry Division brigade made national news. Then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, now secretary of the Interior, called for a task force to seek explanations for the violence.
It's been rough publicity for a post that's only getting bigger in this community, the result of an Army realignment plan announced in 2005. The 4th ID, which had been based at Fort Carson from 1970 to 1995 before moving to Fort Hood, Texas, is bringing thousands of soldiers and their families back to Colorado Springs and the region.
Three of the 4th ID's brigades are already here. The final brigade and division headquarters will return from Iraq to Texas in coming weeks, then make the move to Fort Carson as schools let out and through the coming summer. Combined with an additional aviation unit, Fort Carson should see 5,500 new soldiers by fall. Counting spouses and children, that should add up to about 10,000 new residents for Colorado Springs and the region this year.
Beyond that influx, the Bush administration's "Grow the Army" plan calls for other additions, including a fifth brigade for the 4th ID, which will bring 3,400 more soldiers to the post by 2011. All told, Fort Carson, which now has about 18,000 soldiers, should grow to nearly 30,000 by 2013, with as many as 45,000 of their family members living in the area.
Graham won't be around to see the growth beyond 2009. His command role at Fort Carson is scheduled to shift in August to the major general in charge of the 4th ID. (That division is now commanded by Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, but he likely will be reassigned, with another two-star general taking over at Carson.)
For now, though, Graham still is in charge. The Indy spoke with him recently about Fort Carson expansion, mental health care and other issues while he was attending a suicide-prevention conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Indy: First of all, could you talk about who is coming to Fort Carson and how things will work for soldiers coming up here from Fort Hood?
MG: I think it's around 50 percent of the soldiers who come back from Iraq and go to Hood will move to Fort Carson. The remainder of those soldiers will just be sent to Fort Carson as a normal change-of-station move like we do in the Army. Some young soldiers come out of advanced individual training, then you have some NCOs [non-commissioned officers] coming out of NCO schools, then you have some officers coming out of officer schools, so they will all come to Fort Carson as a normal move.
Indy: So we're talking about 5,500 to 6,000 soldiers arriving here by the end of the summer. What is that going to look like for the community?
MG: Well, the Army averages 2.5 family members per soldier, because some have more, some have less and some are single. I keep telling people I think that's a little high. I would err on the side lower than that; I would say a multiplier of 2 is probably good enough.
Here's what we don't know: How many of those families that are at Fort Hood are going to move to Fort Carson? Because what we're finding now, certainly with the economy, is some families are saying, "Hey, if I live off post, and I own a house, I don't want to sell my house right now."
If their husband is going to come to Fort Carson, the question the family asks is, "When are you going to deploy again? Because if you're going to be there for a year and then deploy again, maybe I'll just stay here and keep the kids stabilized." ... We're starting to see more of that dynamic as families are trying to stabilize their families.
Indy: Could the increased separation as families make those kinds of decisions create new challenges?
MG: Well, it's interesting you say that, because it kind of works both ways. On one hand, it does increase stress because they are apart from each other, but on the other hand it stabilizes the families, especially when you have school-age children. It's a decision each family has to make on their own. We certainly encourage families to move together and be there together, but that's an individual family decision.
Indy: With 10,000 or more new people coming this summer, and plans for continued expansion in the future, the community will see some impacts. Schools that will suddenly have a bunch of new students would seem to face one of the bigger challenges. Can you talk about what is being done to help them prepare?
MG: We have a group that's been working together for months and months now to make sure we're ready. The challenge is, "Where will people live?" We can't answer that question. People will come up here, they'll look at the market, they'll look at what's available, and they'll find a place they can afford. ... Most military folks, the first thing they look at is schools. And they'll want to see, "Where is the school where I want my child to go?" And they'll say, "Can I afford to live there?"
Indy: What about the impact of all these people on local social services?
MG: The good news is, all these soldiers are employed. That really is a positive with the current economy. There's an NCO in every battalion trained in financial management, so they can help soldiers and families with their finances. So we have some social services embedded all the way down to the battalion level. And then, of course, there's counseling and everything available when you get up to the brigade and division level. The majority of social services are available at the garrison.
Indy: But the county Department of Human Services does respond to Fort Carson. Have there been discussions about coping with the increased demand?
MG: We've been talking to them downtown. It's like any city: As your city population grows, your services in your community need to grow with it. I'm sure that will be discussed at the town hall, because right now, there's no [money] for the county or the city or anyone to increase law enforcement. We've asked that question. Assuming you're going to grow 10,000 or more people in your city, normally you'd see an increase in services and all that. So we've been working this. Times are tough with the economy all around, but we have had those discussions.
Indy: How will you handle the increased demand for medical care that Fort Carson growth will bring?
MG: We're doing a few things. One, we're expanding our hospital. Plus, we're also renovating our emergency services area in the hospital to make it more modern and increase its capacity. We also are working on a TBI [traumatic brain injury] clinic. We're continuing to work PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], behavioral health and TBI very closely.
Indy: Has the approach changed for soldiers getting mental health care?
MG: We want to make sure soldiers know it's a sign of strength, not weakness, to come forward and get help. We have seen that our medical professionals can give them help, but we've got to get them to come forward. That's why you have an increased number of soldiers that we're showing to have PTSD. The earlier they come forward, the sooner the medical professionals can start helping them get better.
Indy: A recent string of homicides and other violent crimes in Colorado Springs have been tied to combat veterans in the 4th Brigade Combat Team. Former Sen. Ken Salazar requested a review of those soldiers' records as part of an effort to figure out why this is happening. What's the status of the review?
MG: The task force is still ongoing. ... We're trying to see, are there any common threads among these soldiers? How many of them were together the whole time from one unit to the next? Where were they involved in battles?
We're trying to see if there's any commonality there other than, they were in some tough fighting. We know these guys are in a unit that was in some tough fighting. But then we also know there's a lot of other soldiers that were in the same area in some tough fighting, and this didn't occur. It happened with these soldiers. We're trying to see, what caused that? Why would that be that these soldiers allegedly did these horrible acts?
Indy: What else needs to be done to identify soldiers at risk of acting out back at home?
MG: I think we continue to try to have soldiers help other soldiers. ... Sometimes you just don't know what causes anyone to do some of the horrific things you see on television. Sometimes you see these things done and you think, "Why would a person do that?" We are perplexed, too, although we do know many of our soldiers are seeing some tough things in combat. We do have quite a few things to help mitigate that, to bring them down and help them cope with that, but it doesn't work the same for every soldier.
Indy: What would you say to someone who's worried that more of this will go on as more soldiers arrive at Fort Carson who've seen some of these horrors?
MG: I would say to them, 99 point-however-many-percent of our soldiers are great young Americans who do wonderful things every day for their nation and also they are great members of the community. But there are a few who have done some things that are horrific. We are sorry for that. Our hearts and thoughts and prayers go out to the families that are victims of these crimes.
Indy: The 4th Brigade is about to go for its third deployment in recent years, and many soldiers individually have had three or four deployments. What can be done to help them with the stress that comes with that?
MG: It's hard. It's very hard on soldiers to go back-to-back. I mean, we've been in a long, protracted war here, and it is hard for soldiers to go back time and again. We're getting better at using some different methods of helping them be able to cope and relax and gear down after they come off a mission. ...
But remember, when a brigade deploys, and then they come back, that whole brigade does not stay together again to deploy again. They rotate soldiers in and out. When they leave this year, the 4th Brigade, there will be some young soldiers in that unit who've never deployed before.
Indy: OK, I think I have two more questions. I heard talk of making it easier ...
MG: If I could, though, let me give you another one. One of the things we're doing is because you say "multiple deployments" that's one reason we're growing the Army bigger. As we make the Army bigger and add more brigades, that will be fewer rotations for soldiers, so we won't have to send the brigades back as often.
Indy: I've heard there's talk of making it easier for spouses of soldiers who are teachers to get into the classroom. Is that happening?
MG: There is, and we're pretty excited about that. You know, we have a lot of spouses that are college graduates and have teachers' certificates from other states. When they go from state to state, they typically have to go back and start the process over again. We understand that there's a streamlined process coming that will make it easier for them to do that, which I would tell you takes some stress off the family. It will be easier to go ahead and find employment and do something they're already certified and qualified to do in other places.
Indy: There've been reports of increases in recent years of waivers for new soldiers for educational and behavioral reasons. What adjustments have you had to make to accommodate different standards?
MG: A new soldier comes in the Army, they go to basic training in one of the Army's four basic training centers. From there, they get sent to some more schools, and then they come to us.
By the time they come to us, they've been in the Army six to eight months, minimum. Normally by then, if there's an issue or a challenge there with a soldier in any area, there would have been a problem and it's normally discovered prior to them arriving at Fort Carson. Periodically, we'll get a brand-new soldier in, and they might have some issues, but that's normally the exception rather than the rule.
Indy: But with some of the criminal activity that's happened, there've been reports of some history with the soldiers. Are people coming in with different kinds of backgrounds than used to be the case?
MG: I think that's true. I think there are some waivers now that were not there before, but I really don't know all the details of all those waivers. I'd have to talk to the recruiting command about what those are. I know there are some waivers that were not there before, but, to be honest with you, that kind of ebbs and flows. I've been in the Army 31 years now, so I've seen that change back and forth over time, with different waivers and all that. ... If a soldier got a waiver for something to join the Army, we won't know that at our level.
Indy: Is there anything else you'd like people to know about?
MG: Well, we're excited. We're excited to see the 4th Infantry Division coming back home to Fort Carson. I think a lot of people are excited about that as well. A lot of people in town were members of the division when it was here before, that retired in this area.