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Military Mental Health Care Under Scrutiny

Army generals are scrambling to apologize for the scandal over poor medical care and deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. But the evidence shows that the problems extend beyond the Army's flagship hospital.

Late last year, for instance, an NPR investigation found that many soldiers who returned from Iraq to Fort Carson, in Colorado, couldn't get the mental health care they needed — even when they had post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In fact, their supervisors punished them and kicked them out of the Army. Since then, NPR has received scores of e-mails and calls from soldiers and family members at other bases who say they've being neglected, too.

Some of the first cases we heard came from Fort Knox, in Kentucky.

Consider: One year ago, an Army nurse, Brenda Johnson, was helping to run a medical clinic for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. She was in the middle of her second tour there, and her first lieutenant had just given her a glowing evaluation: "Sgt. Johnson has shown time and time again," the document declares, "that she is an outstanding leader, medic and soldier."

But then, Johnson says, she started losing control. "I couldn't sleep," she told NPR. "I got real shaky. Every time I ate I got sick, just vomited everything I ate, my stomach was always in knots. Nightmares — I had a real hard time going to sleep, 'cause if I'd fall asleep, I'd wake up scared."

The Army medivacked Johnson out of Iraq and sent her to Fort Knox, where, according to Army documents, the medical staff diagnosed her with PTSD and depression. Johnson says Fort Knox never provided intensive therapy or other treatments designed to help cure her depression and PTSD. She went briefly to a private therapist, but had to quit because she couldn't afford it. A few months later, her officers discharged her from the Army, despite her protests. A document in her file states that she was "not likely" to become "a quality soldier."

Today, Johnson sounds bitter.

"It kind of hurts when you give somebody eight years of your life, and they just kind of kick you to the curb," she says. Officials at Fort Knox haven't answered our request for comment.

NPR has received calls and e-mails like Brenda Johnson's from all over the country. (Read more e-mails.) Many of the people who've written are parents — including Kathy Johnson (no relation) in Oregon. Johnson says that when her son signed up with the Marines and flew off to Iraq, she became one of the biggest Marine boosters in America.

"Any veterans' parade, I was there, holding my son's picture up," she says. "I wore a sweatshirt that said 'Proud Marine Mother.' And they have let me down for what happened to our son."

Johnson says her son won't talk to NPR; he won't talk to his own family about what has happened to him since he went to fight in Iraq. She asked us not to use his name, because she's hoping to persuade the Marines to reopen his case, and she's worried that officials might retaliate if they hear this story.

Here is Johnson's account: When her son returned last year to the Marine base in California, he sounded like a different person. The staff at the medical unit diagnosed him with PTSD, but their treatment focused more on medications than on therapy. Her son tried cocaine one weekend, to try to feel better, and promptly flunked a drug test. Johnson argues that his officers should have realized that her son desperately needed help, but they punished him instead: They locked him up in jail for 10 days, then discharged him from the service. An official at the Marine base who's familiar with the case confirmed Johnson's account to NPR.

Johnson says that today, her son sometimes seems like a stranger.

"He gets angry easy," she says, haltingly, "and he's also afraid to be alone. But the main thing I'm concerned with is that he's turned to alcohol, and this was not typical of my son."

In fact, she says, he gets so drunk that "we'll call him on the telephone and he doesn't know who we are."

"You have no idea what this has done to us," Johnson says, starting to sob. "I just want my son back."

NPR has heard dozens of similar accounts. It is still unclear whether such stories reflect a pattern in the military or a small group of disgruntled people. But mental-health specialists who work with troops and their families tell NPR that, unfortunately, they're hearing these same troubling accounts every day.

Over the past six months, the Pentagon's new Mental Health Task Force has been visiting bases around the country, to see if they think troops are getting the help they need. Their report is due in May.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.
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