September 7, 2008 – The photos on Pfc. Spencer Offenbacker’s laptop are gruesome: a severed Iraqi head; bugs crawling over a decaying body; a human skeleton in a pile of garbage.
Offenbacker, 25, a Fort Carson soldier, said he took the pictures to document how he and other Fort Carson soldiers picked up dead bodies near smoking piles of trash in the bombed- out streets of Baghdad.
An infantryman, Offenbacker said he kicked in doors during raids, had the most confirmed kills of any soldier in his unit and was exposed to at least eight improvised explosive devices.
The Army now disputes the amount of combat Offenbacker saw. But Offenbacker did receive an Army Commendation Medal for raiding an Iraqi home and rushing an al-Qaeda target. Offenbacker and another soldier subdued the man, who was reaching for an AK-47 rifle under his pillow.
When he returned to Fort Carson on Dec. 20, Offenbacker filled out a post-deployment checklist about his experiences in Iraq. He indicated that he had nightmares and had been exposed to IED blasts. It was five months later that he was evaluated for those issues by an Army doctor — and that was only after he sought help for drinking from Veterans Affairs doctors.
His troubles weren’t all related to Iraq. Offenbacker had a disintegrating marriage. He began divorce proceedings a few days after he got home. Their daughter, Emma, now 4, was staying with Offenbacker’s parents in Arkansas while he was deployed.
In mid-January, Offenbacker returned to his hometown for a 30-day leave. He was in bad shape when he arrived.
“He was shaking,” said his father, also named Spencer Offenbacker. “He could not understand us. Sometimes, he would forget conversations we had with him only 10 minutes prior. He was very quiet and did not want to talk very much and was getting more agitated and depressed as the days went by. His alcohol abuse was prevalent.”
His father took him to a VA clinic in Arkansas because he thought he was drinking too much. Offenbacker told a VA doctor that he had been shot at numerous times, picked up bodies and saw six people get killed. Offenbacker said he had post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury due to “getting blown up a million times,” medical records show.
Health records from Iraq show he was treated twice in theater for possible head injuries.
After returning to Colorado in late February, Offenbacker said he sought help at Fort Carson, but his superiors “blew him off” and marked him a problem soldier.
He was drinking up to “a handle of Jack Daniels” — a half-gallon — a day. He was too drunk to wake up in the morning and he missed several morning formations and physical training.
In April, unable to cope, Offenbacker went AWOL, back to Arkansas, where his parents noticed he was having suicidal thoughts. He checked into a VA clinic and enrolled in a rehabilitation program. Three weeks into the five-week program, Offenbacker was sent to jail.
A friend had a minor traffic accident and Offenbacker was a passenger in the car. When police checked for warrants, the Army had issued one for Offenbacker being AWOL. The soldier came back to Colorado in handcuffs and shackles May 28. He was sent to the barracks, where a non-commissioned officer was to watch over him. He went AWOL again.
According to a medical record dated June 4, Kelly Moss, a clinical psychologist, wrote that Offenbacker should receive “medication consult and individual psychotherapy for PTSD off post. . . . Referred to neuro psychology for memory problems association with TBI.”
About two weeks later, Offenbacker sat before an Army lawyer. He faced 14 criminal counts — nine counts of AWOL, three counts of disobeying an order and counts of being drunk on duty and wrongful appropriation. He had two options: Go to court-martial and risk felony convictions, or accept a Chapter 10, which entails an other-than-honorable discharge. The criminal counts would be dropped, but the “other than honorable” distinction would prohibit him from getting medical benefits unless he petitioned the VA six months later.
A changed diagnosis
On June 28, Moss withdrew her diagnosis of PTSD. Moss said Offenbacker exaggerated his war experience. She said Offenbacker told her June 3 that he had been involved in “multiple terrorist blasts” and had told the VA he’d been blown up “a million times.”
“According to the 2-12’s meticulous deployment records, PFC Offenbacker was, in fact, involved in only one IED blast during his deployment, whereby the extent of the damage to his vehicle was a flat tire,” Moss wrote in a June 30 memorandum. No one was injured and Offenbacker was cleared medically, she wrote.
In an interview, Offenbacker disputed that, contending he was exposed to at least eight IEDs that permanently damaged his hearing.
“I was in a truck that got tossed 5 feet in the air,” he said.
Moss’ retraction of the PTSD diagnosis is “just wrong and it is not just a coincidence that she changed her diagnosis the same day that Spencer’s case was supposed to go up to the general,” the elder Offenbacker said.
The psychologist also went on to say in her report that Offenbacker reported nightmares, flashbacks, feelings of reliving the event, hypervigilance, irritability, avoidance, visual triggers, difficulty sleeping and numbness.
“Symptoms such as these are reserved for catastrophic-type events whereby one is exposed to a horrific action or ordeal,” Moss wrote.
The elder Offenbacker responded, “This is as unethical as you can get. How does a doctor retract a diagnosis?”
Fort Carson Col. Kelly Wolgast, Evans Army Community Hospital commander, said that even though Offenbacker signed a legal waiver allowing Fort Carson to discuss medical information, Fort Carson said it does not do so because it is not in the best interest of the patient.
“We can say, however, that if additional and more accurate information about a patient is provided, a mental- health diagnosis may be modified to reflect the new information,” Wolgast said.
Discharged with mental scars
On July 3, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, commander of Fort Carson, allowed Offenbacker to be discharged from the Army “under honorable conditions.”
In an interview, Graham said that “after I stood back and looked at the whole thing, I thought that the discharge should be a different level of characterization. That’s why I gave him a different level of discharge.”
“The commander sees part of it; there’s a medical part of it; but at my level, I’m able to sit back and look at the whole picture,” Graham said. “What the doctor did, I don’t really know why she did what she did; that’s in the medical lane really.”
Offenbacker went home to Arkansas in July with a collection of prescribed pills: an antipsychotic medicine used to treat PTSD, a drug used to treat PTSD-related nightmares, an antidepressant, a sedative and a blood-pressure medicine.
“We are pleased with the general discharge, but my son should have been put into the Warrior Transition Unit and allowed to go through a medical review process,” Offenbacker said. The “warrior” units were created to help soldiers heal from the physical and psychological wounds of war.
Since he left the Army on July 15, Offenbacker has returned to the VA clinic to “get his meds right,” his father said. He has to repay a $12,500 bonus that he received while in Iraq, money his wife spent while he was away, and other debts for housing and lawyers, totaling about $27,000.
“He is very agitated most of the time and struggling daily just to stay on track. He has been doing a lot of yard work and trying to fish as much as possible; these are his passions. He is trying to be a father to Emma, but is struggling to get back into her life.”