VCS in the News, Pt. 1: One Soldier’s Struggle – Sgt. Fights Anger, Treatment System

Savannah Morning News

May 3, 2009 – Sgt. John Jones’ anger usually starts simply.

Sometimes, it’s triggered by a thought about circumstances he cannot change. It builds until he thinks of little else.

Or it flares up when superiors speak to him harshly or rudely – events, he says, that occur with too much frequency in the Warrior Transition Unit’s Charlie Company at Fort Stewart, a special unit focused on soldiers with injuries that require more than six months of medical treatment.

He tries in vain to control the rage by reminding himself to breathe.

He recognizes his behavior as inappropriate. He knows he would never have acted this way before.

Before the Iraqi insurgent’s bomb blast in June 2007.

Before doctors found a brain tumor and removed it from his left temporal lobe in January 2008.

Before he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If I didn’t have kids, right now I’d be in jail for doing something stupid,” said the father of three.

Watch video of two soldiers in the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Stewart talk about their experiences.

For nearly two years, Jones has been assigned to a unit designed to help him focus on a new mission: getting better.

But the litany of police reports for this 3rd Infantry Division soldier, Army counseling statements and threats of being removed from the military tell a different story.

They paint a dark picture of a combat veteran struggling with the scars of war even as the Department of Defense vows to meet the complex needs of others just like him.

‘I thank God’ for the blast

The Iraqi insurgency was still raging in the summer of 2007 when the 3rd ID’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team deployed as part of a troop surge ordered by former President George W. Bush.

Jones was assigned to the 2nd Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry. He was already a seasoned combat veteran at the age of 29 and serving a second tour as a gunner.

He doesn’t remember much about July 16, 2007.

“I knew we were in a bad area for IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” he said.

Jones remembers the crew’s driver inching their Humvee through an area suspected to contain insurgents’ bombs.

He recalls being perched in the gunner’s turret, carefully scanning the roadway before him searching for tell-tale signs of hidden bombs.

“I said ‘Clear,’ and as soon as I said that, it blew up,” he said. “I don’t remember much after that.”

The left side of his body took the brunt of the blast. It mangled his ankle and slammed his shoulder.

 View more images of Sgt. John Jones.

Jones never lost consciousness but doesn’t remember the moments that followed.

Back at the forward operating base, doctors put him on bed rest for a week.

But a week later, Jones’ medical records show, he still couldn’t walk steady and was constantly nauseous. His ears rang nonstop and headaches were incessant.

He wasn’t getting better.

It raised enough concerns that doctors at Aid Station Falcon sent him to Balad Air Base, Iraq, for further testing. The attending doctor called Jones’ ongoing symptoms “worrisome.”

He feared Jones was exhibiting an illness other than stress disorder or mild traumatic brain injury – common side effects among soldiers involved with IED blasts. They flew him to Landsthul Regional Medical Center in Germany for further testing.

There, Jones’ life was shaken again, this time by the discovery of a half-inch tumor in his left temporal lobe.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I thank God for the IED,” Jones said. “If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have known about the tumor.”

For Jones, the next six months became a blur of splitting headaches and strong medications.

A turning point

On Jan. 22, 2008, Sgt. Jones went under the surgeon’s knife at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to have a Grade 2 astrocytoma tumor removed from his brain.

It marked a turning point for Jones, a proud soldier who enlisted Sept. 12, 2001, and had no previous record of behavioral issues. He awoke from surgery into a nightmare that would eventually become his reality.

A day after brain surgery, military records indicate, a junior officer at Walter Reed entered Sgt. Jones’ room to begin the initial intake process, thinking the soldier was being assigned to the medical center’s newly established Warrior Transition Unit.

He wasn’t.

The conversation didn’t go well.

“During the intake (Jones) became very agitated with me,” the officer wrote in a memorandum dated Jan. 31, 2008. “During our conversation the (patient) ran around the room, in and out of the bathroom, yelling and using profanity.”

The soldier’s mother, Teresa Jones, still remembers the scene.

“They kept following him around the room asking him questions, and he just got more and more upset,” she said.

Teresa Jones is a registered nurse back home in Louisiana. She said she was taken aback that officials at the Army’s premier medical facility would even attempt such a conversation so soon after brain surgery.

“The doctors had him on steroids in the hospital, and they thought that his being short-tempered was maybe a result of the steroids, so they weaned him off of them,” she said. “But I was very surprised … especially when they could have gotten answers to the same questions prior to surgery.”

The soldier had suggested the same thing.

“I remember telling them … ‘I don’t know what I’ll be like after surgery, so if you have any questions, ask them now,’ ” Sgt. Jones said.

Two days after brain surgery, the same junior officer returned with a squad leader.

Again, they tried explaining the process to Sgt. Jones and his family.

Again, they faced an irritated patient who cursed and yelled. A lot.

The Army deemed the behavior unbecoming of a non-commissioned officer. Sgt. Jones was reprimanded for the outbursts in written letters sent to his chain of command back at Fort Stewart.

The letters form the base of a tower of punitive paperwork, including two Article 15 hearings – one at the company level, another at the battalion level in the months to come. These hearing are the military equivalent of a mini trial for soldiers who commit offenses that don’t warrant a full-fledged court martial but cannot go unnoticed.

Much of the paperwork after his brain surgery note his history of outbursts against officers and non-commissioned officers.

A new record begins

Doctors at Walter Reed, pleased with Jones’ physical healing, sent him back to Fort Stewart’s Warrior Transition Unit.

Throughout the spring, his medical records show a patient on the mend.

He attended morning formations. He went to group therapy as well as physical therapy for his ankle, which wasn’t better despite an earlier surgery.

He met with case managers and returned to Walter Reed for post-operative follow-up appointments in March 2008.

Doctors prescribed painkillers and anti-inflammatories, anti-seizure medication and anti-depressants.

He sought to quit smoking, a bad habit from his days as a gunner.

The headaches, however, persisted. He developed sensitivity around the scar tissue on the left side of his head, so much so he couldn’t wear a beret – an Army uniform standard.

When Jones missed a doctor’s appointment on April 28, 2008, he was given a developmental counseling form.

In it, Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Williams, his platoon sergeant, noted the soldier had “a record of being disrespectful to officers and non-commissioned officers.” Informed of the missed appointment, Williams claimed his soldier once again had “a very bad attitude.”

Jones’ signature was missing from the counseling statement, and Williams noted Jones was on “home duty and not present to sign because of his conditions.”

A month later, Jones was given – and signed -a second counseling statement.

By this time, Jones had been transferred to Charlie Company, which was created in May 2008 due to overcrowding in the WTU. The new company was under the command of Maj. Gwendolyn Moore.

For Jones, it meant new squad leaders and commanders, new personalities to please.

A few weeks later, he had an altercation with these new leaders after a request for leave was denied.

Documents indicate his commander feared Jones was a safety risk based on his history; Jones argued he needed time away from the transition unit for the sake of his sanity.

Military records state Jones went into a rage and threatened to harm his company commander and her family.

The incident resulted in a recommendation for his first company-level Article 15 on June 23, 2008.

Two days later, the soldier was counseled on a change in his profile. He was taken off home duty and told to report to company formations at 7:30 a.m. each weekday.

A day after that, his commanders discovered Jones was working a part-time job at a local vacuum cleaner dealership. He needed money to support three children from his first marriage, who live with their mother in Louisiana.

They told him working a civilian job could compromise his recovery. They said it also violated doctor’s orders not to lift more than 25 pounds.

He argued the cleaners only weighed 23 pounds. The dispute still frustrates him.

“I got pretty good at it,” Jones said, adding the extra cash helped, especially since he had remarried and has two stepchildren.

He’s toyed with the idea of going back into sales once he is released from the Army but isn’t sure he’ll be able to handle the work as he once did.

“I don’t know if I can be as good as before,” Jones said.

Escalating turmoil

Jones’ volatility spilled into the civilian world.

A disagreement over the purchase of a new truck at a Hinesville-area car dealership found the soldier threatening the business owner, prompting even more concerns among his commanders.

“Sgt. Jones, your behavior has been completely unwarranted and unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Maj. Moore wrote in a June 27, 2008, counseling statement after getting wind of the incident. “Your medical condition(s) will not serve as an avenue for you to do and say whatever you please.”

In the counseling statement, Moore ordered Jones to begin anger management group therapy sessions twice a week.

A month later, Jones was struggling to get more than four hours of sleep on any given night despite his prescription for the sleeping aid Ambien.

He was written up for a two-week period in which he made two unscheduled visits to the doctor, called in sick twice and missed formation due to the effects of medication Fort Stewart doctors prescribed for insomnia.

He lost his driving privileges. His superiors threatened to move him into the transition unit barracks on post, rather than letting him stay with his wife in their Hinesville home. He was told he could only go home on supervised visits.

Each punitive action made him angrier.

During a discussion on July 25, 2008, about his revoked driving privileges, Jones’ nurse case manager got frustrated. Jones said she slammed a stack of files onto a desktop.

The noise set the soldier off. A strong reaction to sudden noises is a common occurrence among those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The nurse case manager feared for her life.

Reports indicate his squad leader tried to calm Jones down and pinned him to the wall until military police arrived. They reported Jones appeared calm but still took him to the station for booking before releasing him to his unit.

Jones returned to his barracks that night, having hit a personal low.

He felt bullied by the people charged with helping him.

He dwelled on fears of new medical tests indicating a tumor’s possible growth in his right temporal lobe.

He had lost sight of any hope of recovery a year after his injury in the bomb blast.

He found solace in a bottle of sleeping pills.

He was rushed to Winn Army Community Hospital in the early morning hours, where they pumped his stomach and filled him with IV fluids.

“I tried to commit suicide at that point,” Jones said, his voice low and his eyes welling with tears.

Jones would get a short reprieve from the punitive orders and threats.

During this time, the soldier separated from his wife and moved into a cabin in Riceboro.

It has become the last place on Earth where he still feels like the “old John.” It’s a place that takes him back to his childhood and fishing on the Louisiana bayou.

Problems continue

By late September 2008, the paper trail of counseling statements had resumed:

— One for failing to call in to his squad leader during a weekend fishing trip off post.

— Another to remove his personal weapons for fear he remained a threat to himself or others.

— Yet another for insubordination to his case manager for canceling an appointment.

Each time, his commanders threatened to make him leave the cabin.

By early 2009, Jones was still struggling with insomnia, had his medicines stolen from his truck, and was chastised for showing up to formation under the influence.

His company commander ordered him to take a drug test, suspecting illegal drug use.

The test came back clean, but it was another turning point for Jones.

He decided to stop taking the narcotics the Warrior Transition Unit doctors prescribed.

During the last week of January, he quit cold turkey.

No more Oxycontin. No more Ambien. No more Percocet.

“I still need it, but I’m not going to take it,” he said at the time.

In February, Jones was ordered to move back on post.

The move was prompted by an incident on Feb. 20 when Jones was arrested in Alabama.

He had made an emergency run home to Gonzales, La., because his son, Kyler, had been hospitalized with respiratory problems, a chronic issue for the child, who was born prematurely two years earlier.

Jones said his visit had gone well and he was returning early to Fort Stewart but struggling to stay awake on the road.

He pulled over and got a hotel room for the night. He was still struggling to get a full night’s rest and decided to take an Ambien left over from an old prescription.

“I went to sleep and woke up in jail,” Jones said. “I don’t even know what happened.”

Daphne, Ala., police officials say he was arrested after a couple reported the soldier had tried to break into their hotel room. During the night, police said, Jones had left his hotel room after taking the Ambien, got confused and tried to get into what he thought was his room.

When police arrived, Jones resisted arrest.

The next day, he said, police were ready to drop charges and release him, but officers at Fort Stewart asked them to hold him until he could be picked up by his squad leader.

When Jones got back, he was told he must leave his Riceboro cabin indefinitely.

Jones said he was so angry he knew he would say or do something stupid to yet another new company commander.

So, four days later, Jones checked himself into the behavioral health department at Winn Army Hospital, where he stayed for nearly two weeks before checking himself out.

Waiting for release

Now, Jones finds himself caught in a waiting game.

He received a battalion-level Article 15 for the incident in Alabama.

He’s been threatened with a demotion to specialist and was banned from leaving the installation for 30 days.

He is awaiting discharge from the military.

His commanders tell him he’ll be out by June 1.

He doesn’t believe them.

Meanwhile, time means a lot to Jones.

With his cancer always in his thoughts, the 31-year-old worries about having only another 10 “good” years left.

He doubts getting a four-year college degree is worthwhile.

His left ankle is still causing him pain. Army doctors haven’t even touched his left shoulder, which constantly aches.

Now, he frets about his future. So does his family.

“He knows he won’t be the same as before,” Teresa Jones said.

His mother said she, as well as her son, worry about how Jones will support himself, his current family and the three children from a previous marriage once he is released from the Army.

Jones’ release from military service is just as elusive as his cancer.

“I’ve heard I’ll be out in three months, probably no more than six,” Jones said in November.

“But they’ve been telling me that for a year now.”

 

 

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