The Army routinely deployed injured soldiers, including those with serious psychological problems, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and “exacerbated the medical and mental health conditions of countless soldiers and veterans” by flouting screening processes and disregarding medical restrictions, a new report by anti-war veterans’ groups alleges.
The report — which relies on lengthy testimonies of 31 active-duty troops and veterans of Fort Hood, Texas, taken in 2012 and 2013 — also cites the “rampant over-prescription of psychotropic medications” without proper medication management, and frequent prescribing without accompanying diagnoses.
The testimonies, timed for release on Memorial Day, were collected by Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Civilian Soldier Alliance and Under the Hood Café and Outreach Center. They highlight two key concerns: That soldiers were kept in the military despite trauma and injuries, and more recently, that soldiers have been discharged from the military unfairly and denied benefits.
“As swiftly as soldiers were required to re-deploy to combat operations irrespective of their medical needs when forces required, the Army has drawn down its forces by strategically discharging soldiers irrespective of ongoing treatment needs and justified service benefits,” the report says.
While the soldiers interviewed are based at Fort Hood, the Army’s largest installation, the veterans’ groups maintain that the report’s findings “evidence patterns and themes emerging from a military system much broader than Fort Hood alone.” The report comes seven weeks after Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, who was treated for mental health problems, shot and killed three people and wounded 16 others at Fort Hood before committing suicide.
Among the report’s common themes is a lack of adequate pre- and post-deployment screening for mental health, which soldiers described as cursory, at best. The testimonies challenge repeated assurances by the Department of Defense (DOD) that it has taken steps to safeguard troops’ mental health — before, during and after deployments. Those assurances included a change in DOD policy in 2006 – triggered by a series in The Hartford Courant – that tightened screening and deployment rules for service members with mental health problems.
In addition to a lack of screening, the report says, Fort Hood commanders “routinely disregard and override doctors’ orders” for medically necessary work restrictions. Soldiers cited a number of cases in which medically non-deployable soldiers were re-deployed. One soldier, Chas Jacquier, who deployed twice to Afghanistan in 2005 and 2010 as an MP (military police), said his unit’s numbers were so low that “we actually took soldiers into Afghanistan who were on crutches.”
The report also includes testimony about a lack of adequate counseling and treatment for troops with PTSD and other mental health problems.
“Over-medication for both physical and mental health symptoms is a primary means by which Fort Hood treatment facilities provide substandard care to soldiers on a routine basis,” it says. To support the claim, the report cites statistics from Fort Hood’s Darnall Army Medical Center: A daily average of 4,258 patient encounters, and an average of 4,160 daily prescriptions.
Over-the-counter painkillers and prescription opiates were among the most commonly reported medications, with some soldiers reporting having taken those drugs during deployments and being assigned to duties that they felt incapacitated to perform.
One soldier, Malachi Muncy, a truck driver who served two tours in Iraq between 2004 and 2007, said he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD between his deployments. After pointing his gun at someone while in Iraq, he said, he was sent to see a mental health clinician and had his weapon taken away. But three days later, he got his gun back, after being prescribed Prozac and another drug.
“That was part of what they said made me suitable to go back on the road so quickly. Like, I had a prescription, so I was good,” he recounted.
In recent years, Army and defense department officials have announced a number of new initiatives to improve mental health treatment for troops and try to stem the high rate of soldier suicides. In addition, last week, the House approved legislation that would create a uniform mental health evaluation for recruits seeking to join the military.
Other concerns voiced in the report are that soldiers are being “disciplined, punished and discharged” for infractions that previously were ignored, including behavior resulting from traumatic injuries.
“Many soldiers at Fort Hood who may have been eligible for medical retirement, or needed treatment for traumatic injuries, have been discharged without benefits,” the report alleges. And soldiers who remain eligible for VA care often find themselves in the hands of “an overwhelmed VA system, where they encounter long waits for care without adequate transitional support from the military.”
The report makes a number of recommendations to the defense department, Fort Hood and Congress, including: increasing non-pharmaceutical treatment options, evaluating soldier discharge practices, and launching a Congressional probe into the impacts of multiple deployments on troops.
More information on the report is available here.