Congress examines military mental health policies
WASHINGTON — Chris Scheuerman believes the military he served for 20 years failed his son Jason by discounting the 20-year-old’s mental health problems before Jason shot himself to death in his Iraq barracks almost three years ago.
Carefully choosing his words before a hushed congressional audience, Scheuerman spoke of how the young private’s superiors largely ignored his obvious signs of distress and expressions of alarm from his family in the days leading up to his suicide.
“I do not believe there is a safety net right now for those who fall through,” Scheuerman told a House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee meeting held March 14. His military service included Army medicine in the Special Forces.
Scheuerman was among several who spoke of their experiences with the military’s mental health system at a time when military personnel, facing prolonged warfare and lengthy deployments, are under particular stress.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gutteridge, an Iraq War veteran treated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), spoke of the abiding prejudices toward those with mental health problems.
“PTSD sufferers are lepers without lesions,” he said.
At the same time, Gutteridge and others spoke of improvements in the military responses to the high levels of PTSD, mental health problems and brain injuries among those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gutteridge praised the “passionate mental health advisers” at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he was treated.
“The specialized care program was awesome,” he said.
Dr. S. Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and the surgeons general of the Army, Navy and Air Force also outlined their efforts to recruit more mental health professionals, provide prompt care for those with psychological issues and extend outreach programs to military personnel and their families.
The military is “charging their battle buddies, enlisted leaders and their company commanders to identify people who are struggling,” Casscells said. “Early detection is important.”
Democratic Rep. Susan Davis of California, chairwoman of the Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, urged further improvements. With multiple long-term deployments, mental health “weighs heavily upon the readiness of our force, our ability to retain combat veterans and our obligation to care for those who volunteer to serve our nation,” she said.
An increase in military suicides — the Army said recently that as many as 121 soldiers committed suicide last year, more than double the number reported in 2001 — has dramatized the issue. Casscells said that although the suicide rate is still below that of the civilian population, it is of serious concern.
Chris Scheuerman’s travails over his son’s suicide, which he earlier shared with The Associated Press for an extensive AP article, included both frustrations over how his son was treated and obstacles to getting information about his death.
He told the hearing that three weeks before Jason’s death, the family contacted the Army about suicidal e-mails, but got no response. Despite his son’s erratic behavior, including putting the muzzle of his weapon in his mouth, and concerns expressed by his chaplain, the base psychologist told his commanders to send him back to his unit because he was capable of feigning mental illness to get out of the Army.
Soldiers with mental problems should be afforded a second opinion, from a civilian psychologist, by teleconference if necessary, Scheuerman said.
“It should be mandatory for psychologists to contact family to gather pertinent information,” he said. “If they had called us, there would have been a different outcome.”
Gutteridge related how he had begun suffering from nightmares, anger, “horrible thoughts” and heavy drinking after he was redeployed from Iraq to Germany last year.
“Reliving the horror of evacuating fallen soldiers’ and Marines’ remains, as well as searching through body bags for dog tags and watching soldiers die, was too much,” he said.
But when his condition worsened, Gutteridge was told it would be three weeks before he could get an appointment with his nurse practitioner or a doctor.
“The only way to get immediate help was to be suicidal,” he said. The military embeds journalists in units, he said; “why can’t we embed more mental health providers?”
U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., said the system had failed Pvt. Scheuerman and others, with the military “intent on treating this as a public relations problem rather than a mental health problem.”
“I’m hopeful this is beginning to change,” Etheridge said.