South Dakota Case Highlights Army’s Mental Health Challenge for Iraq War Veterans

Sioux Falls Argus Leader

May 12, 2007 – Spc. Ryan LeCompte of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe was on his way last week from Fort Carson, Colo., to a Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Sheridan, Wyo.

The former scout with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment will be treated for post traumatic stress disorder, and his wife, Tammie LeCompte, hopes he also will be evaluated for a possible brain injury suffered during two tours in Iraq from 2003 to 2005.

To get this care, his wife says, LeCompte had to overcome a Fort Carson military bureaucracy that refused to acknowledge the seriousness of his condition and primarily tried to treat him for a substance abuse problem. He also had to endure slurs from superiors that he was “a drunken Indian.”

On the contrary, says Lt. Col. David Johnson, Fort Carson public affairs officer, leaders of LeCompte’s unit worked diligently to get him into the VA center, and an investigation is ongoing into whether LeCompte was harassed because of his background.

“We’re not sitting idly by,” Johnson says.

Their accounts of LeCompte’s ongoing struggle vary wildly. In the disparity, they offer a look at a growing challenge faced by the military. On one hand, it must keep itself focused forward to retain readiness to fight effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, casualties of those fights with mental and behavioral problems strain military health care systems and force institutions such as the Army to make tough calls on whether such soldiers can be salvaged.

Fort Carson is at the center of an ongoing General Accounting Office inquiry prompted by Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Christopher Bond, R-Mo., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The senators want to know whether Fort Carson officials are downplaying mental health conditions among returning soldiers or are trying to force soldiers with such problems out of the Army.

“My husband is not an alcoholic,” Tammie LeCompte insists.

After a night of drinking in mid-April, LeCompte spent two weeks in a civilian emergency mental health care facility near Fort Carson. The facility is set up to house patients for 72 hours. However, Fort Carson officials prevailed to extend LeCompte’s stay until they could get him into the Wyoming VA center. Johnson calls that “a perfect example of us making sure we care.”

Tammie LeCompte has a different view. “They threw him in there for two weeks. The doctor said, ‘We’re not equipped for this.’ ” But military officials insisted, “You leave him in there until we figure out what to do with him,” she says.

The drinking incident was an attempt by her husband to deal with ongoing mental trauma, she says. LeCompte’s uncle, Orval Langdeau Jr., Lower Brule vice chairman, says his nephew never started drinking until about age 20, when he joined the Army seven years ago.

“In my opinion, all the Army did was make him drink more than he did,” Langdeau says.

As a scout, LeCompte saw hard fighting. That changed him, his wife says.

“At night he would get up and he would be so disoriented he would think he was still over there. He would be crawling around on the floor thinking he was still in combat.

“He was just angry. His eating habits changed. There was just so much.”

LeCompte suffers both short- and long-term memory loss, she says, and he has seizures.

Army medical officials were convinced the root of LeCompte’s problems was substance abuse. He failed two substance abuse treatment programs at Fort Carson, Johnson says. He cancelled or failed to show up for more than 20 appointments for treatment.

A requirement of getting into the Wyoming VA program, Johnson says, is that LeCompte acknowledge he does have a substance abuse problem.

Tammie LeCompte says because he was never treated for PTSD or evaluated for a brain injury, substance abuse therapy was fruitless.

Failing to complete the two programs at Fort Carson could be grounds for LeCompte to be discharged, Johnson says. The fact he isn’t being forced out “shows how Fort Carson and the leadership here are fighting for LeCompte,” Johnson says.

Tammie LeCompte counters that Fort Carson officials were indeed trying to make her husband leave the Army until she and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe asked South Dakota’s congressional delegation to look into his case. Spokesmen for Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin say their offices did inquire on LeCompte’s behalf, but citing the federal medical privacy law, they declined to be more specific. Thune’s spokesman, Kyle Downey, said Thune “is working to ensure returning veterans receive the appropriate health care they need and deserve.”

In happier times, Tammie LeCompte says her husband was notable for sly humor. The couple live with their four children ages 19-4. She has three other children who live in Dallas. Because her husband returned from Iraq with behavioral problems, Tammie LeCompte says she has been forced to resign her own job to take care of him and their children. During that time, her father also died.

“It’s one tragic event after another,” she says. “We’re living day by day.”

The LeComptes met in 2001. “A whole group of us girls had gone out,” she remembers. Eleven years older than “this very extremely gorgeous Native American man, I tried to introduce him to girls his own age,” she says. “The next thing I knew, he was calling me.”

Now she wonders if she’ll ever get that person back.

“I think we can get him recovered eventually,” she says. “It will take some time.”

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