Army Ignores, Punishes Soldiers with Post-Traumautic Stress

NPR’s story by Daniel Zwerdling on the Army’s treatment of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder is getting quite a bit of play in the blogosphere.

The crux of the story is that while “Army studies show that at least 20 percent to 25 percent of the soldiers who have served in Iraq display symptoms of serious mental-health problems,” the service culture basically tells those inflected to suck it up and act like men.

Almost all of the soldiers said that their worst problem is that their supervisors and friends turned them into pariahs when they learned that they were having an emotional crisis. Supervisors said it’s true: They are giving some soldiers with problems a hard time, because they don’t belong in the Army.

[Specialist Tyler] Jennings called a supervisor at Ft. Carson to say that he had almost killed himself, so he was going to skip formation to check into a psychiatric ward. The Defense Department’s clinical guidelines say that when a soldier has been planning suicide, one of the main ways to help is to put him in the hospital. Instead, officers sent a team of soldiers to his house to put him in jail, saying that Jennings was AWOL for missing work.

[…]

Alex Orum’s medical records showed that he had PTSD, but his officers expelled him from the Army earlier this year for “patterns of misconduct,” repeatedly citing him on disciplinary grounds. In Orum’s case, he was cited for such infractions as showing up late to formation, coming to work unwashed, mishandling his personal finances and lying to supervisors — behaviors which psychiatrists say are consistent with PTSD.

Sergeant Nathan Towsley told NPR, “When I’m dealing with Alex Orum’s personal problems on a daily basis, I don’t have time to train soldiers to fight in Iraq. I have to get rid of him, because he is a detriment to the rest of the soldiers.”

While this is cold-hearted and outrageous from an intellectual standpoint, it’s hardly surprising. Many will recall this famous scene in the movie “Patton:”

Patton: What’s the matter with you?

Soldier Who Gets Slapped: Well, I… I guess I… I can’t take it anymore.

Patton: What did you say?

Soldier Who Gets Slapped: It’s my nerves, sir. I… I just can’t stand the shelling anymore.

Patton: Your *nerves*? Well, hell, you’re nothing but a God-damned coward.
[Soldier start sniveling]

Patton: Shut up!

[Slaps him, once forehanded, then backhanded on the rebound]

Patton: I’m not going to have a man sitting here *crying*! In front of these brave men who have been wounded in battle!

[Soldier snivels some more, and Patton swings a vicious forehand slap, knocking his helmet away]

Patton: *Shut up!*

[to the doctors]

Patton: Don’t admit this yellow bastard. There’s nothing wrong with him. I won’t have a man who’s just afraid to fight *stinking up this place of honor!* You will get him back up to the front.

[to soldier]

Patton: You’re going back to the front, boy. You may get shot, and you may get killed, but you’re going back to the fighting. Either that, or I’ll stand you up before a firing squad. Why, I ought to shoot you right now, you…

[pulls his service automatic. At that, the doctors leap forward and hustle the soldier out of the tent. Patton keeps shouting at the soldier’s back]

Patton: God-damned bastard! Get him out of here! Take him back to the *front! You hear me? You God-damned coward!*

[Takes deep breath]

Patton: I won’t have cowards in my army.

This was a real-life incident. “Soldier Who Gets Slapped” was named Charles Kuhl. Patton’s reaction was not a momentary lapse in judgment, either. He actually sent a memo out to the 7th Army on the matter:

It has come to my attention that a very small number of soldiers are going to the hospital on the pretext that they are nervously incapable of combat. Such men are cowards and bring discredit on the army and disgrace to their comrades, whom they heartlessly leave to endure the dangers of battle while they, themselves, use the hospital as a means of escape. You will take measures to see that such cases are not sent to the hospital but are dealt with in their units. Those who are not willing to fight will be tried by court-martial for cowardice in the face of the enemy.

While the Army’s culture has changed somewhat over the years, it still has very little tolerance for what is perceived as weakness. Soldiers who go on sick call for something less severe than a large caliber gunshot wound (What? A .22? Rub some dirt in it, you wuss.) or cancer are not held in high esteem.

Shaun Mullen found out first hand:

The notion that “you have to be a man” and not admit to pain or emotional distress runs deep in the military psyche. While I did not expect my sergeant to kiss my boo-boo or read me a bedtime story, my one (non-combat) injury while serving in the Army was treated with disdain and ridicule.

To some extent, this is a leadership and command problem that needs to be addressed. Largely, though, it is the mentality required of warriors. If there’s no crying in baseball, there sure as hell can’t be any in a foxhole.

FILED UNDER: Health, Military Affairs, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. It’s one thing to get lambasted by a superior for getting the jitters on the battlefield where people depend on you. It’s quite another to come home and ask for help and then be ridiculed for asking for it. What the army is doing at Ft. Carson is reprehensible.

    If I recall the story correctly – which I’ve heard twice on NPR – all of these men had good records while in Iraq, some exemplary. The problems started after they came home – not on the battlefield where they could be accused of being “yellow bastards” while others were getting shot at. By all accounts, they loved the Army.

    It’s not like they sat there pissing their pants while in combat, James. They took took their blows, witnessed the atrocities, then came home and begged for help.

    What the Army did and is doing to them is dishonorable – and yes, I know how strong that word is when describing the Army. And it’s the correct one.

    I’ll also note that one of the Sgts who ridiculed these men (you hear this at the end of the NPR story) has, himself, started psychotherapy because, as a result of his experiences in Iraq, he started having episodes of violence and was becoming a danger to his wife/girlfriend.

  2. By the way, Towsley, mentioned in your excerpt, is the one in therapy.

  3. Fersboo says:

    The caption at the original:

    Medical records show that when Tyler Jennings returned from Iraq last year, he was severely depressed and used drugs to cope. When the sergeants who ran his platoon found out, they started to haze him. He came close to hanging himself after officials said they would kick him out of the Army.

    (emphasis mine)

    I’m sure that the using drugs ‘to cope’ had nothing to do with ‘depression’. Forgive me, but I am biased of course, seeing that this story is brought to us by NPR and we only have Specialist Jennings’ side of the story. I’m wondering if the order had been depression, doctor, hazing, drugs, hazing, attempted suicide, dismissal from military instead of depression, drugs, doctor, hazing, attempted suicide, dismissal from military if I’d feel different. Probably not.

    Wasn’t there a character in a famous TV show that constantly tried to get out of the military by faking a mental illness?

    BTW, I too suffered a severe, non-combat injury. It pretty much screwed up my last year of my enlistment and convinced me that re-enlistment wasn’t an option. Since I wasn’t a slacker but a highly motivated Specialist waiting for NCO school, there weren’t any problems despite belonging to a combat unit (stateside) during the 1st Gulf War.

  4. I’m sure that the using drugs ‘to cope’ had nothing to do with ‘depression’

    You obviously know nothing about depression and coping mechanisms.

  5. legion says:

    While the treatment of soldiers who ask for help after coming home as described is inexcusable, I suspect I know things that contribute to the problem… The military (all services, not just the Army – I know I’ve seen it in the AF) have an enormous difficulty stepping up and saying “no mas”; even when they are clearly at or even past the breaking point. Actually getting these guys the help they need would take them out of their units, disrupting their daily peacetime missions, as well as any training & preparation for further deployments – I believe that was mentioned in the NPR story as well.

    The simple fact is that it may not be possible to get these people the help they need while continuing the current OPTEMPO. If true, it’s something any military leader would be loathe (and possibly unable) to admit publically until some sort of disaster occurs. And I’m not even considering the impact on active-duty and VA medical facilities…

  6. OMG, Fersboo!! It’s NPR!! Get out the Liberal Bias Repellant!!

    It disgusts me that the fact that a legitimate story is brought to you by an organization perceived (incorrectly, in my opinion) to be leftist, is used as an argument against the story. It’s a LAZY argument, and you should be embarrassed you brought it up.

    Soldiers are suffering. You claim to support them.

    Apparently, only if they conform to your world view. Shameful.

  7. Legion: What does OPTEMPO mean? Sorry, not familiar with the term! Damned military and its Acronym Culture! LOL!

  8. floyd says:

    “”While the Army’s culture has changed somewhat over the years, it still has very little tolerance for what is perceived as weakness.”” Patton’s attitude,though admired by many,was not representative of army culture at the time. i understand he was reprimanded for this incident,and that his whole attitude was not well accepted by those in charge.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Michael: OPTEMPO is “operations tempo.” Basically, the degree to which military personnel are deployed to active missions.

    Floyd: Well, it was largely an amateur military, ramped up rapidly from a tiny cadre to a gigantic force for the war. And Patton was an extremist even for career officers. Guys like Omar Bradley, certainly, thought Patton was over the top in this one (as do I).

  10. Anderson says:

    It’s rather remarkable to cite Patton without mentioning what happened to him as a result of his slapping soldiers around: relieved of duty and came close to being cashiered.

    So I’m not sure that yesterday’s Army believed in such abuse, either.

    The Germans in WW1 treated PTSD with electroshock & other punishments. Many victims killed themselves.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Anderson:

    I’m not citing Patton positively; just as a well-known symbol of a mindset that’s very pervasive.

  12. From what I can see, the Army moved to get the soldier out of the Army so his spot can be taken by a new recruit.

    I think the question is what to do with actively serving soldiers with PTSD. Do you need to carry them on the rolls while treating them or should they be dismissed for other causes?

    My nephew recently was severely injured in a stateside, non-duty accident. He had a reasonably good record and a few commendations in his jacket. If he had been drinking when the accident occurred (or worse found to be taking drugs), he would be out of the service. As it is, he had to get the O-6 to go to bat for him to get him returned to duty with his unit.

    Its not as bad as the 90’s, but there is still a strong culture of trying to retain the best, exiting those who are less than the best and replenish the ranks with recruits for the resulting holes. If there is doubt, chunk him out. Given the fact that how well the person performs can literally be a life or death issue, it’s not hard to understand why this is the prevailing attitude.

    The real question should be what they do for the PTSD post-separation. As far as separating those with PTSD, you would need to show that the PTSD soldier would be superior to the recruit alternative in order to get the mindset changed. But asking those who would literally risk their life on a future tour with a guy who missed out on the training while being treated and who is more likely to break in combat (my supposition, but I think its a reasonable one) to ‘go easy’ on him and not want to see him replaced is just a bit to politically correct for the situation. Its not the PTSD soldiers fault, but its not his fellow soldiers fault that they prefer not to risk their lives in the future in order to be sensitive.

  13. mike says:

    First – PTSD unlike a lot of mental disorders does not cause people to commit crimes nor does it excuse criminal behavior – the person still understands right from wrong – any psych will tell you this.

    Two – the army has taken huge leaps forward in treating PTSD and is not simply court-martialing folks.

    I can say this from personal experience with the military justice system, treatment for PTSD and dealing with accuseds who claim that they did it b/c of PTSD.

  14. As painful as it may seem, perhaps this is still the best way to deal with it. Rest assured that the man with a gun on the other side of the wall has even less sympathy for you and your problems.

  15. It’s not PTSD that is the problem, it’s whinging about it. A combat veteran is SUPPOSED to have PTSD. That’s why he gets special training, so he won’t be as surprised by it. He gets extra pay while in the field, because that is when he is at greatest risk. He even gets benefits throughout his career to help minimise that risk.

    But if you go to a combat zone, you are supposed to face trauma and thereafter experience stress. That’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s your JOB. And your response to that needs to be one of two things: DEAL or QUIT. Neither of those means you get special treatment or therapy or reduced duty. Failure to understand that effectively means you are no soldier in the first place.

  16. just me says:

    I think the question is what to do with actively serving soldiers with PTSD. Do you need to carry them on the rolls while treating them or should they be dismissed for other causes?

    I think this is what I have been thinking through the piece and comments.

    I do think the military has a culture that doesn’t tolerate weakness, and I know in the 90’s, when my husband was in, if word got out that you were seeing a psychiatrist or similar therapist it could hurt your career, even though it wasn’t supposed to. And there were ways to hurt a career with evaluations that were subtle, but harmful.

    I am also not really convinced that people with serious mental disorders, combat related or not, should be serving in the military. If a guy is suicidal, discharge is probably better for his unit than trying to keep him.

    I also agree that PTSD or not, you shouldn’t get a bye for criminal behavior-it doesn’t help the unit, if some guys are showing up late for work, and aren’t physically or mentally ready to do their jobs-if you aren’t doing your job, you should still be held accountable-sounds mean, but it isn’t fair to guys who have been there, come back and are meeting their responsibilities.

    The military absolutely needs to meet the needs of members who return with PTSD, but I am not sure that meeting their needs requires the member remain in uniform and doing only their job half assed.

  17. cian says:

    It seems to me that Specialist Jennings was doing the responsible thing by informing his superior officer that he had attempted to kill himself, to have done otherwise would have been dishonourable and a threat to his fellow soldiers at the front.

    Instead, he was put in jail.

    Having never been in a situation more threatening than a half hearted mugging by two drunks, I am in no way qualified to comment on anyone’s reaction to traumatic events, but I seriously doubt there is any form of training that can prepare soldiers for the sight of a child’s skull being crushed under the weight of a passing truck, just one example from a documentary on a march to New Orleans by some Iraqi veterans.

    But, hey, who am to contradict the tough guys who post here risking as they do, and on a daily basis, what exactly?

  18. Fersboo says:

    Michael:

    Thanks for responding. Having lived with families members with both depression and drug problems and having had to deal with my own depression, it is know obvious to me that I ‘obviously know nothing about depression and coping mechanisms’. Thanks for letting me know.

    Cian:

    I went back and reread the first couple of paragraphs; I see nothing to indicate that Spc. Jennings was incarcerated.

  19. Fersboo: Well, you certainly have an odd way of showing that you know about depression – like being totally wrong, for example.

  20. And, by the way, I am a thesis short of a Master’s degree in clinical Psychology, and I also suffer from major depression – thankfully controlled nicely by medication.

    So don’t lecture me with your down home psychology home-schoolin’.

  21. Fersboo says:

    Michael,

    If there be any lecturing between the two of us, I believe you are the one behind the lectern. Your personal attacks show a complete lack of emotional security and emotional independence. I would hope someone on the way to their Master’s in Clinical Psychology would recognize that.

    If you feel it necessary to continue this conversation, feel free to email me at fersboo-at-yahoo-dot-com or visit http://bitsblog.florack.us/

  22. No personal attackes here. Don’t know where you got that idea. All I’ve said is that drugs and alcohol are often used as coping mechanisms. You disagree, which displays your lack of education on this matter. Just do a Google search on “Drugs as a coping mechanism” It’s not that difficult:

    Wasn’t there a character in a famous TV show that constantly tried to get out of the military by faking a mental illness?

    If that’s not a personal attack on a soldier who is suffering, I don’t know what is.

    And I also said your argument was lazy because you brought up NPR’s supposed liberal bias and used it to question the merits of the story itself, without providing a basis for that assertion.

    Does something have to play on FoxNews for you to believe it?

    And thanks for letting me know that I lack emotional security and independence. Rich I tells ya, RICH!