November 14, 2007 – SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — A soldier who served two combat tours in Iraq was arrested Wednesday as he was preparing to surrender to Fort Drum officials after spending more than a year AWOL seeking treatment for his post traumatic stress disorder.
Sgt. Brad Gaskins, 25, of East Orange, N.J., said he left the northern New York post in August 2006 because the Army wasn’t providing effective treatment after he was diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression.
“They just don’t have the resources to handle it, but that’s not my fault,” said Gaskins, speaking at a news conference in Syracuse just hours before he was arrested at the Different Drummer Cafe in Watertown, less than 10 miles from Fort Drum.
Gaskins, an eight-year Army veteran who also did a peacekeeping tour in Kosovo, was taken into custody by two civilian police officers from Fort Drum and two Watertown city policeman, said Tod Ensign, an attorney with Citizen Soldier, a GI rights group that is representing Gaskins. Ensign said he was on the phone with military prosecutors at Fort Drum working out the details of Gaskins’ surrender when the soldier was arrested.
Fort Drum spokesman Ben Abel said after a soldier is AWOL for more than 30 days he becomes classified as a deserter and a federal arrest warrant is issued.
Abel said Gaskins would be turned over to his unit commanders, who will decide whether he is to be prosecuted or not.
Ensign said Gaskins’ case is part of a “coming tsunami” of mental health problems involving Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said more than 100,000 soldiers were being treated for mental health problems, and half of those specifically for PTSD.
“We hope they don’t just recycle him and push him back into the role of soldier. They need to see him as a badly injured person and he needs to be treated that way,” said Ensign, whose organization previously represented Spc. Eugene Cherry, another Fort Drum soldier who was facing a court martial and a bad conduct discharge after going AWOL to get treatment until the Army softened its stance and gave him a general discharge in July.
Gaskins said he enlisted in 1999, excited to be serving his country and with the dream of becoming a policeman after fulfilling his military duty. He was scheduled for discharge in 2009.
In 2003, Gaskins was deployed to Iraq and said he served his first tour without incident. He was sent back to Iraq in June 2005, and his mental health began deteriorating.
In his second tour, Gaskins said his job was to conduct road searches and locate IEDs.
In one outing, Gaskins said his unit found an IED and were waiting for an explosives team to arrive to disarm it. An Iraqi police officer decided to shoot the IED, which caused an explosion that leveled a nearby house.
“It killed a family of four … that sight will never leave my mind. These people were in their house eating their breakfast. They never had a chance,” Gaskins said.
The disturbing experiences continued. A friend in another unit was killed. Gaskins said he was in numerous gunbattles, including one in which two Iraqi police officers were accidentally killed by his unit. His unit was ambushed several times and he saw the aftermath of countless suicide bombings, including one that left 25 people dead.
“It takes its toll. It’s a constant fear every day,” he said.
Gaskins left Iraq in February 2006 and was transferred to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, where he sought help for his worsening mental problems.
Upon his return, he began suffering flashbacks and nightmares, headaches, sleeplessness, weight loss and mood swings that took him from depression to irrational rages, he said.
Military doctors sent Gaskins to the Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, where he spent two weeks and was diagnosed with PTSD. He soon returned to his unit, but continued having problems. When he asked his commanders about returning to Samaritan, they told him it would delay any chance he had at obtaining a medical release.
“There is a stigma that comes with seeking help and you basically jeopardize your entire career,” Gaskins said.
At the time, the Fort Drum mental health facility had a staff of a dozen caring for approximately 17,000 troops, Ensign said.
Over the past year Fort Drum has expanded its mental health facility staff to 31, with plans to add another 17 staffers, Abel said. “Is there a need for more — yes,” he said.
Abel said he was unaware of the specifics of Gaskins’ case and declined to comment on it.
Unable to get proper help, Gaskins said requested a two-week leave and went home to New Jersey, where he had one of his most worrisome experiences.
“My wife came home late one night and startled me awake. I think I blacked out. I ran at her with a knife and almost stabbed her. I didn’t know what I was doing … I don’t want to hurt anybody,” said Gaskins, who said he hasn’t been able to find a job because of his PTSD.
Gaskins and his wife are currently separated as he tries to deal with his mental problems. He has only supervised visitation rights with his two children, a 3-year-old son and a 9-year-old stepdaughter.
Gaskins said he called Fort Drum officials, told them about the incident, and said he wasn’t coming back.
“They never sent anyone to help me,” Gaskins said, adding, “I never attempted to hide. I stayed at my house.”