April 21, 2008 – Staff Sgt. Chad A. Barrett was determined to muddle through a third tour of duty in Iraq.
Though his medical records show he suffered from acute post- traumatic stress disorder, had difficulty sleeping and was struggling with a traumatic brain injury, he assured his commanders and doctors that he could again serve his nation.
Yet, only weeks after arriving in Mosul in northern Iraq, Barrett, 35, a member of Fort Carson’s 4th Infantry Division, was struggling.
“I am not getting any better, and really bad thoughts are running around my head,” Barrett wrote in an e-mail to his father after five fellow soldiers were killed on Jan. 28 in an ambush by insurgents.
“Part of me wishes that one of those guys was me,” he wrote. “I am goin(g) to try to talk to someone about sending me back home, cause I feel like I am just going to cause harm out here.”
But Barrett would never make it home. Just five weeks into his tour, on Feb. 2, he went to his room and swallowed a lethal combination of antidepressants and sleeping pills that were prescribed for him.
Barrett is not alone.
The Associated Press in January reported 121 Army suicides in 2007, an increase of more than 20 percent over 2006, based on internal briefing documents the news organization obtained.
A RAND Corp. study released last week estimates that 300,000 U.S. troops – about 20 percent of those deployed – are suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the days leading up to his deployment, Barrett lobbied his commanders and doctors to drop a medical evaluation process that appeared destined to end his 11-year Army career in early retirement for a disability.
Now Barrett’s parents in Tennessee want to know why the Army’s medical professionals were swayed by their son’s entreaties.
“In my experience, you don’t tell the doctors what to do, the doctors tell you,” said Chad Barrett’s mother, Linda Helton.
Fort Carson has faced scrutiny in recent months for deploying dozens of soldiers deemed unfit for duty.
Officials at Fort Carson won’t discuss the Barrett case, citing medical privacy rules, but post commander, Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, issued a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Barrett family and friends,” he said. “The specifics of this case are currently under investigation and no further information can be released until the conclusion.”
During a memorial service in March, Barrett’s Army comrades described him as an expert marksman with a friendly smile and selfless attitude.
“He didn’t have much direction growing up,” said his father, Ronnie Barrett. “When he joined the Army he found himself and became a man.”
Chad Barrett served in Texas, Virginia and Germany before completing two tours in Iraq. Along the way, he earned the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal and several other honors, including a Combat Action Badge.
Living in pain
The after-effects of combat took their toll, however.
During his second deployment to Iraq, Barrett survived several nearby explosions, including one that left him briefly unconscious. When he returned home to Fountain, he found it difficult to relax and enjoy life. He was gripped by agonizing headaches, said his wife, Shelby Barrett.
“There were times when he was on the ground, holding his head, because he was in so much pain,” she said.
Chad Barrett also weathered violent dreams, she said.
Finally, in June 2007, Barrett was hospitalized briefly following what medical records indicate was a suicide attempt – although Shelby Barrett believes her husband suffered a bad reaction to various medications prescribed for him at Fort Carson’s Evans Army Community Hospital.
Barrett later was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition where witnesses or survivors of a traumatic event face ongoing emotional and other problems.
According to an Army medical record of Sept. 13, 2007, Chad Barrett’s PTSD was a barrier to his retention in the Army. Dr. Clark L. Jennings of Evans’ hospital psychiatry service wrote that Barrett should be given “no assignments remote from definitive psychiatric care” and should be barred from carrying a weapon.
On Oct. 24, 2007, at least one of Barrett’s commanders backed a medical evaluation process and possible retirement. Barrett was no longer able to perform daily duties. He was described as distant and had previously attempted to harm himself.
“All specialists and command agree it is time for Chad to be removed from the United States Army,” the commander wrote.
Weeks later, Shelby Barrett said she attended a meeting between her husband and Fort Carson doctors and commanders, who decided to end her husband’s medical evaluation.
“Chad didn’t want me to oppose him in the meeting,” Shelby Barrett said. “So I didn’t. The plan was that he could be deployed and receive regular psychological help once he was in Iraq.”
An Army Medical Evaluation Board, or MEB, may be terminated at the discretion of a physician if the physician determines the soldier meets all of the Army’s retention standards, according to Michael P. Griffin, deputy director of patient administration for Army Medical Command.
“An MEB cannot be terminated by a solider,” Griffin said.
During a Dec. 21, 2007, psychological visit just before his Christmas Day deployment, Barrett had eight active prescriptions, including Klonopin for bouts of anxiety and Ambien to help him sleep, his medical records indicate.
Dr. Jonathan A. Olin, an Evans hospital psychiatrist, concluded that Barrett had “no suicidal intent” at that time.
Just weeks later, though, Barrett had thoughts of harming himself.
“I might be a lot stronger, but I have also went through a lot, I know not as much as some, but everyone is different and certain people can only take so much before they break,” he wrote in an e-mail to his parents. “I feel like I am at that point. I can try to play tough all I want, but I know that I am not and that I need help.”
Barrett’s parents encouraged him to seek help, but he told them he was having difficulty finding it and that he had difficulty sleeping because he was assigned as an overnight radio operator.
Barrett sent his last e-mail to his parents, claiming the Army only wanted “the correct number of people on the ground . . . no matter what the cost.”
“Well everyone will find out the cost soon enough,” he wrote hours before he died.
Shelby Barrett said her marriage to Chad was strained and that was part of her husband’s suffering, but she does not buy into the official explanation.
Her husband’s death might have been an unintended reaction to his medications, she said.
“I won’t believe it was a suicide until the final report is issued,” she said. “I have to see it for myself.”
Linda Helton wants the Army to release the note found on her son’s body.
Ronnie Barrett said he is proud of his son, even though he may have ended his own life. He noted that Army Secretary Peter Geren attended his son’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I appreciate the Army for honoring him as a hero,” Ronnie Barrett said. “Yet I also feel the Army let my son down. Chad felt he was just a number and the Army didn’t care.”
Army suicides by year
2003 2004 2005 2006
* Active duty
79 67 87 99
* Soldiers deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan
26 13 25 30