Flying solo 

How the Air Force's treatment of one man's bipolar disorder sent him into a lonely downward spiral

On his graduation day at the Air Force Academy 18 years ago, Grant McKenzie was ready to conquer the world. He thought of his diploma as the portal to the mystique of the officer corps and defense-related work that would propel him to a lucrative, important and wholly rewarding career.

Going from base to base over the next decade, McKenzie analyzed weapons systems, briefed people appointed by the president, and trained younger officers in leadership. The bespectacled Southerner's supervisors called him a "top performer" and "one of my sharpest officers." He made captain, and was granted the military's highest level of top-secret clearance. He was the kind of guy the Air Force would surely never want to lose.

But it already had.

McKenzie wrestled with bipolar disorder, diagnosed by the Air Force within months of that sunny graduation day but never properly treated. As McKenzie cycled down into the abysmal clutches of the illness and its accompanying addictive behaviors — pornography, in particular — he repeatedly told superiors what he was going through. But the Air Force apparently ignored its own policies for how to deal with such disorders.

Instead, military officers busted him in 2003 for misconduct and sent him to military prison, with a label that's made him virtually unemployable ever since. It follows him even now like a jet contrail, through the winding corridors of another dysfunctional government system: the courts.

But McKenzie hasn't lost hope, and a small band of supporters is fighting to give him a viable future the Air Force denied him.

"This isn't a pervert," says Robert Alvarez, a psychotherapist who's worked with the Wounded Warrior program at Fort Carson and advocates for McKenzie. "This is a mentally ill man. I think everybody failed him. Had he gotten proper treatment, none of this would have happened."

Reading 'til dark

When Cadet McKenzie first entered the Air Force Academy in 1989, he didn't have hand tremors like he does now, from the lithium. He didn't often trail off in mid-sentence.

In fact, his parents thought he was a fairly normal kid, although they admit he was consumed with his studies and didn't have a lot of friends. One of his favorite gifts was a Childcraft Encyclopedia, says his mother, Mary McKenzie. He toyed with paper airplanes, weighting them with paper clips to make them fly better.

He loved school and excelled in early grades in Louisiana. But when the family moved to Mississippi for his dad's job, other kids and even a teacher harassed him for being a nerd.

McKenzie remembers feeling isolated and depressed, though at the time he didn't label it that way. He'd come home from school, finish his homework and then lie on his bed, lost in a book until it was too dark to read, he says.

In high school, he withdrew socially.

"We thought he was a moody teenager," says Robert McKenzie, speaking by phone from Mississippi. "Looking back now, we can see it was more than that."

Having decided in seventh grade to aim for the Academy, McKenzie transferred as a high school junior to the college-prep military school Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal, Va. There, he became fast friends and went to parties with another student, Connie Gutshall, who would play a major role in his life years later. But they lost touch after he graduated, at the top of his class, and he spent a year at Mississippi State University in the ROTC program before being accepted at the AFA.

At 5-foot-7 and 125 pounds, McKenzie quickly became an easy target for other cadets, he told one therapist.

"When he would try to study and work on projects, other peers would throw golf balls for hours at his door to disrupt him," another psychiatrist recounts in a report.

"That was tough, especially the freshman year," McKenzie says. "Looking back on it, I was in a severe depression at the time. In fact, I went to the counseling center and told them, 'I'm supposed to have problems, I know that. But not like this.' They thought I was trying to get out. They told my commander and the upperclassmen that I was volunteering to get out. [The commander] pulls me into his office and told me I looked weak and anemic, and that cadets at the academy weren't weak and anemic." He got no medication, he says.

So it was a triumph for McKenzie and his parents when he tossed his hat into the air that day in 1993. "His dad and I were triple-proud of him when graduation day finally came," his mom says.

Just two days later, about a month before his 23rd birthday, McKenzie married a Manitou Springs girl, Heidi Van Den Aardweg, whom he'd met the summer before.

An unquiet mind

First stop for the McKenzies was Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, N.M., where he worked on analysis of rocket guidance systems and acceleration profiles.

He was diagnosed by the Air Force with cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar disorder, in October 1993 after experiencing racing thoughts and uncontrollable bouts of laughter. He also tried to hang himself after a disagreement with his wife, he says. He didn't tell the Air Force about the suicide attempt, but he did disclose his depression, and an Air Force doctor prescribed Pamelor. It's normally used to treat depression, and can cause excitement or anxiety, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

"It helped the depression, but it didn't help the mania," McKenzie says. "They originally told me if I had to be on the drug for a long time, I would have to go to a medical board." So, he says, Air Force doctors would prescribe Pamelor for a few months and then take him off.

When he left Holloman, he was on Pamelor full-time. But no medical board was ever convened.

In 1996, McKenzie was transferred to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., where he worked on design and analysis of ballistic missiles and the defense facilities that housed them. He was given a Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance, the highest level in the military.

"I went straight to the psychiatrist there and told him about the meds," he says. "I thought, if they wanted to do a medical board, I was ready to do a board if necessary, because I was manic, irritable, had racing thoughts. They kept me on the Pamelor."

During a two-week trip to New England to visit military installations, he remembers, he slept only eight hours total. "That's when I went back to the doctor and said, 'I think I'm having manic symptoms,' and they prescribed Depakote, an anti-convulsive mood stabilizer," he says. But McKenzie says the dosage was so low, "it was like a placebo."

Sometime during 1997 and 1998, he also was diagnosed with bipolar disorder Type 2 — more severe than cyclothymia, but not as bad as bipolar Type 1 — and along with Depakote was prescribed Zoloft, a drug used for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder. Though side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, seizures and even hallucinations, his clearance wasn't altered.

While at Bolling he experienced a breakthrough when he picked up the book An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. She taught psychology at Johns Hopkins University, where McKenzie was taking classes toward a master's in aerospace engineering (a degree he hasn't finished).

"I read and reread the book, highlighting parts I identified with," McKenzie says. "That was when I realized, 'This is bipolar disorder.' That's where my education started."

1,716 obscene images

While at Bolling, McKenzie's supervisor caught him with pornography on his computer and wrote up a reprimand letter. But the supervisor held off turning McKenzie in, saying he'd let it slide unless it happened again.

Later in 1999, McKenzie got to Maxwell Air Force Base at Montgomery, Ala., where he taught leadership and teamwork. By then, he was viewing pornography two to three hours per night. When his wife caught him, he sought help at the base mental health clinic, despite its potential harm to his career, according to a psychiatric report about McKenzie's history.

He began seeing a psychologist for his pornography addiction and a psychiatrist for his bipolar disorder, he says. McKenzie says he told the two doctors of both problems. But apparently neither made the link between the two issues, even though hypersexuality is a common symptom of the mania part of bipolar disorder, according to the mental health industry bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

For a time at Maxwell, McKenzie gave up pornography, but he resumed his habit in April 2002. He later told a psychiatrist that he was having delusions of grandeur at that point, thinking, "I am too good; they won't get rid of me."

That August, he was assigned to Peterson Air Force Base here to work on contracting for satellite antennas.

Within a month at Peterson, as at other bases, he went to a psychiatrist. "I was very up-front with the doctors as that stuff progressed," McKenzie says. He admitted accessing pornography five hours a day and told the psychiatrist he thought his problem was out of control. The psychiatrist continued his medications, but didn't change them.

He was arrested on Nov. 6, 2002. Network administrators had received information that McKenzie's computer had accessed pornographic websites, and an investigation revealed 1,716 obscene images on his computer, including pictures of "naked or partially clothed young girls in sexually suggestive positions alone or with other young girls," according to the charge sheet.

Through the years, McKenzie says, he'd derived sexual excitement from some of the adult pornography he saw. But he wasn't turned on by the photos of the girls, whom the charge sheet described as "obviously" underage, and whom he describes now as being young teens. Rather, he says, he was immersed in an obsessive sorting ritual wherein he would place images in folders labeled according to type.

"It's looking for the patterns," he says. "I would download a bunch of pictures as fast as I could get them, then I would spend time sorting them. I would find ones that were tricky to categorize. I would organize them by the color of the women's hair or by various attributes and how they compared, so I could fit it into a category."

Such classification exercises, he says, "help my brain slow down"; he likens it to a time when he put together a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle in less than a day. But he was drawn to pornography, instead of something else, he says, because at the time it was the "big thing" in his life.

With charges pending, McKenzie was assigned maintenance duties at the base. But as his mania deepened, he asked to be hospitalized in February 2003.

His first night at Cedar Springs Hospital in Colorado Springs, he was given Seroquel, used to treat schizophrenia, mania and depression. It helped him sleep. After awakening the third day after two doses of Seroquel, McKenzie felt a window had opened for him. "Oh," he recalls thinking, "this is peaceful. I came to the realization, this is what normal is."

There, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder Type 1, the most serious type, and got a new drug regimen that also included lithium and Wellbutrin, given for depression. It's a regimen he lives with today.

Behind bars

McKenzie pleaded guilty in military court to the equivalent of a civilian misdemeanor. At his sentencing hearing in late 2003, his psychiatrist at Peterson, Maj. Paul Hanley, testified McKenzie came to him on Sept. 11, 2002, having previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder Type 2. Hanley testified bipolar disorder is "absolutely" a diagnosis for which a military member can be discharged medically — a "slam dunk," in fact.

Hanley, though, didn't recommend a medical board until after McKenzie was hospitalized in February 2003. The medical board called for McKenzie's discharge, but the finding was preempted by his dismissal for the criminal conviction — thus negating his ability to access any veterans' benefits.

Dr. Bruce Ebert, a forensic psychologist, attorney, professor and former chief of psychology at two Air Force bases, has evaluated more than a thousand sex offenders. Before testifying at McKenzie's sentencing hearing, Ebert read all of the captain's mental health records, examined McKenzie in person over a two-day period, and studied his military, family, employment and marital histories.

Ebert testified that hypersexuality is a "clear and well-documented symptom associated with bipolar disorder" and that McKenzie's pornography addiction was part of his disorder, and in no way associated with pedophilia.

Ebert also testified that McKenzie had self-reported his bipolar issues — highly unusual in the military. He also joined therapy groups after being charged and was motivated to remain on his meds and control the disorder, Ebert said.

Like Hanley, Ebert expressed disbelief that McKenzie had been allowed to remain in the Air Force for so long.

"I am really surprised that he gets a diagnosis of bipolar disorder — and this is essentially in 1997, he is identified as having psychological problems before that — and he is still in the Air Force today [in 2003]," Ebert testified.

In a 2008 report of another analysis of McKenzie, conducted for purposes of visitation with his three children, Ebert notes four times that McKenzie should have been granted a medical discharge after being diagnosed as bipolar.

"Why he was not medically boarded at that time is a mystery," he wrote.

The Air Force today won't discuss details of McKenzie's case, but said in response to questions that Air Force providers "are committed to the well-being of their patients. They endeavor to ... achieve remission of symptoms or at least allow the patient to maintain stable and productive use of life and limb." When conditions do not resolve, the response continued, "AF mental health providers are required to make medical recommendations to command regarding military disposition. This can lead to medical board processing or to administrative separation, depending on the specifics of the case."

Although McKenzie chalks up the Air Force's failure to board him to incompetence, his father has a more sinister point of view. "The type of job that Grant was doing, the technical engineering, they didn't have a lot of people doing that job," Robert McKenzie says. "That was one of the reasons the doctor was helping him stay in the Air Force."

With the criminal case, though, the Air Force was ready to cut him loose: On Dec. 10, 2003, he was sentenced to nine months in the brig at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego.

Frank Spinner, who represented McKenzie during his court appearances and has built a national reputation for defending military members, says McKenzie was treated unjustly.

"The Air Force should have discharged him because of that bipolar disorder for medical reasons," Spinner says. "He was just a very nice guy, and I just felt bad for him all the way around. Some people, every time they turn a corner, misery hits them in the face."

The sentence came six months after his wife wrote a heart-wrenching letter imploring the Air Force secretary to "let us get on to our new lives."

"The facts are that Grant and I have traveled a long hard road as a result of his mental illness," she wrote. "A mental illness which is the key factor as to why he is in legal trouble and how his illness got out of hand as a result of a lack of proper medical care with the Air Force.

"We assumed the medical professionals would take care of him, that they knew what they were doing. We were wrong."

She said her husband was given the wrong medication, "which made his condition worse," and then was given a "drastically low dose of the right medication, 250-mg Depakote [twice a day], which is now correct at 1500 mg."

"Through it all, Grant was discouraged for [sic] seeking help because 'it might hurt his career,'" she continued in the letter. "Nevertheless, Grant continued to seek help for his illness and eventually for pornography addiction. We were led to believe that this was a separate problem and it was treated as such. We now know that untreated bipolar and addiction go hand-in-hand."

Reached by e-mail, then-Air Force Secretary James Roche says he doesn't remember Mrs. McKenzie's letter, or the case itself.

Kathleen Gilberd of San Diego, a military counselor nationally recognized for her expertise in military administrative procedures and discharges, says the military lists bipolar as a mood disorder, which becomes a reason for discharge "when the persistence or recurrence of symptoms requires extended or recurrent hospitalizations, or the need for continuing psychiatric support."

"It's not the existence of a bipolar disorder alone," she writes in an e-mail, "but the level of severity and the need for ongoing treatment ... These days, psychiatrists take bipolar disorder quite seriously, in part because of the significant risk of suicide, and I have not run across retentions with this disorder."

Gilberd also notes she's seen military cases in which bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD, and even schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders were "under-diagnosed, with the result that people are retained in the service until their problems become overwhelming or take the form of 'misconduct.'"

Getting a job

After McKenzie was released in summer 2004, his wife divorced him, blaming him for financial problems and their lives falling apart. (Now remarried, she turned down an interview request for this story.) Since then, he has struggled.

He did work as an assistant manager at Domino's Pizza for a while. And then, using his dad's oil-industry connections, he performed contract services on oil rigs in Africa. That job lasted about nine months, until civil unrest drove the company to pull out. He hasn't been able to get a similar job since, he says.

McKenzie says he's applied for dozens of jobs but had no offers. Alvarez, the vocational and rehabilitation expert who evaluated McKenzie's vocational outlook during his divorce proceedings believes McKenzie faces "two catastrophic impediments to employment": a sex offense conviction and bipolar disorder.

"Either one of these conditions alone usually result in low wage, sporadic employment," Alvarez wrote. "Together they create a situation where even federally supported employment targeted at disabled [sic] is not an option."

Alvarez says that sex offender is the "greatest stigma in the world," and that of the hundreds of sex-offender clients he's seen, the few who obtained employment did mostly low-wage manual labor. He notes that despite McKenzie's Air Force Academy degree, no prospective employer "could withstand the legal liability of hiring him," given the rigid requirements of the aviation and defense contractor industries.

While some people who suddenly become disabled can be retrained in another field through State Vocational Rehabilitation services, the state turned McKenzie down and labeled him a person "with most significant disabilities." It recommended self-employment. But Alvarez says McKenzie's drugs bar him from driving, further complicating his work life, and have a sedative effect on him through the day.

Even renting an apartment has been a challenge, because many landlords ban sex offenders. The one he's been in for the past six years, in northeast Colorado Springs, isn't much bigger than his old AFA dorm room.

But inside it, there's a bright spot: his old girlfriend Connie.

She says that when McKenzie sent her an e-mail in 2005, she was eager to reconnect. When he acknowledged his mental disorder, "I was not surprised at all," she says. She remembered him being edgy for no reason, and that he was picked on and depressed as a cadet.

A few weeks later, he told her about the conviction. "I was shocked," she says. "I was disturbed."

But McKenzie said he wasn't a pedophile and had never touched a child sexually. And his explanation about sorting photos rang true with her: She has an aunt who's bipolar and constantly reshuffles and re-catalogues things. Still, Connie did her own research to verify everything, before they got married in December 2007.

In their tiny apartment today, the couple's shared interests in science fiction, books and writing — they're both members of Pikes Peak Writers — are evident in two sagging bookcases that bear titles such as Winged Victory and Advanced Engineering and Mathematics. A smaller bookcase stores animated films they watch during visits with his kids: two daughters, 13 and 11, and a 9-year-old son. One wall is covered with military memorabilia from his service days, a time he is proud of, she says. The cramped living room is strewn with boxes of candles — one of his self-employment ventures.

Connie says her husband has followed the state's self-employment recommendation. He worked as a home inspector and a secret shopper, and sold Amway products. But nothing's paid very well. The $20 check on the countertop, she explains, represents several hours of secret shopping. Her El Paso County Department of Human Services job has to pay most of the bills.

Disorder in the court

In mid-2010, McKenzie landed a contract to ghost-write a book, for which he's received $8,200 so far. He's paid $6,400 of it in child support, while the rest has gone to living expenses, he says.

Catching up on his child support could take him a lifetime — he owes more than $25,000. Most of it accumulated after mid-2009, when Magistrate Evelyn Hernandez-Sullivan, dismissing testimony about his mental disability, more than doubled McKenzie's monthly obligation to $1,608.

Hernandez-Sullivan based her finding on McKenzie's oil rig job of six years ago, which paid $62,000 a year — even though Alvarez testified he'd be lucky to land a minimum-wage job.

McKenzie's attorney filed a motion for Hernandez-Sullivan to recuse herself for bias, based on her treatment of him and his client in court; he claims she urged him to speed up his case and had a "demeanor [that] made it appear that she had a preconceived idea" of how she might rule. Yet on Jan. 3, with that motion still outstanding, Hernandez-Sullivan ordered McKenzie to jail for four months for contempt of court, for failing to catch up on child support.

When a district judge finally looked at the recusal motion, he found that Hernandez-Sullivan was wrong for going ahead with sentencing. With that, McKenzie was released March 1.

More wrangling over child support and visitation undoubtedly lies ahead. Colorado's Court of Appeals has remanded the child support award for reconsideration, and McKenzie is seeking unsupervised visits with his children — right now, because of his sex offense, he must pay roughly $100 for a court-appointed monitor to oversee each visit. He can afford only two a month.

The blizzard of motions, petitions and appeals makes you wonder who's paying the legal bills. McKenzie's parents figure they've spent more than $100,000 on legal fees, child support and financial assistance.

"One reason we've fought the legal fight is to make sure we get to see the grandkids," Robert McKenzie says. "There's no reason why Grant should not have visitation with his kids. The best bet for our visitation is for Grant to have visitation."

But that well is running dry, because Robert McKenzie recently retired. "I was hoping it would be over in two to three years," he says.

McKenzie's current lawyer, Robert Fisher, hasn't charged for countless hours of work.

"I'm committed to this case, because what is happening to him is so wrong, and so not supported by the law or the facts," Fisher says. "I'm passionate, because this guy is getting screwed when he shouldn't be."

McKenzie swears he's not a deadbeat dad. He attends his kids' soccer games and music concerts. He keeps a big tub of art supplies for drawing, painting and sculpting, and his place is stocked with games and art projects for visits. Pictures of his kids are scattered around his apartment. He wants to provide for them. He just can't.

'A life to live'

The first time I meet McKenzie, he's in jail. Peering through a video screen with the phone cradled on his neck, he's ready to unload. "Like my mom said, 'People need to know your story,'" he says, then chuckles, like he does a lot when it seems out of place. He discusses his past, answering every question.

When we meet again, he's getting out, carrying a big plastic bag full of crackers, ramen noodles and workbooks from the jail's reintegration program. He's smiling. He wants ice cream. So his wife whisks him off to Baskin-Robbins.

When we meet for coffee a few days later, he doesn't shy from the uncomfortable details, such as what it was like to have a "penile plethysmograph" strapped onto him a year ago, as part of a parental risk assessment required for sex offenders who want contact with their children. "It was demeaning," he says matter-of-factly. But several day-long tests and interview sessions at multiple times led two therapists to conclude he's not a pedophile.

Within minutes, I notice his hands shaking, and his propensity to let sentences trail off into nothing.

When he tunes into a conversation of two people next to us, I tell him, "Just ignore them."

"I can't," he replies.

Even on the meds, it's a battle. It always will be. And McKenzie still could spend more time in jail, depending on the outcome of the May 24 hearing on the recusal motion. But still, he's hopeful. There's Connie, and there's also his book deal and his candle business. "I can see all these things coming together being more and more profitable over the years."

Alvarez says the government has rejected McKenzie's application for Social Security disability, which would help him pay child support and bills. But Alvarez will try again. He also wants to help McKenzie petition to get his dismissal changed to a medical discharge so he can access veterans benefits to fund his medications.

Getting a punitive dismissal overturned is rare. The Air Force outlines a variety of avenues, including a presidential pardon, that are complicated, time-consuming and iffy. One method, a plea to the Air Force secretary, has resulted in only six of 192 cases being granted clemency since 2001.

McKenzie hopes those efforts are successful, but he doesn't anguish over it.

"Yeah, I blame the Air Force for everything they did wrong," he says. "But I don't carry it around with me. I still have a life to live. My basic feeling is that I can't change anything that's happened.

"Dwelling on it doesn't make it any better. So just live for tomorrow."


Bipolar 101

Grant McKenzie is among 5.7 million Americans 18 and older who are affected by bipolar disorder in a given year, says Dr. Robert Radujko-Moore, a psychologist at AspenPointe in Colorado Springs. Bipolar disorder is classified as a serious mental illness, a category that includes about one in 17 people, he says.

— Pam Zubeck

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