Soldier Suicides Cause Military Mental Health Policies to be Examined

Associated Press

March 15, 2008 – Washington, DC — Chris Scheuerman believes the military he served for 20 years failed his Army son Jason, who shot himself to death in his Iraq barracks almost three years ago.

Carefully choosing his words before a hushed congressional audience Friday, the father spoke of how the 20-year-old private’s superiors largely ignored the soldier’s signs of distress and his family’s expressions of alarm in the days leading up to his suicide.

“I do not believe there is a safety net right now for those who fall through,” Scheuerman, a veteran with service in Army medicine, told a House Armed Services subcommittee.

Scheuerman was one of several people who testified about their experiences with the military’s mental health system. Military personnel, facing prolonged warfare and lengthy deployments, are under particular stress these days.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard Gutteridge, an Iraq war veteran treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, spoke of the military’s prejudices toward service members with mental health problems. “PTSD sufferers are lepers without lesions,” he said.

At the same time, Gutteridge and others cited improvements in the military’s responses to the high levels of mental health problems and brain injuries among those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. S. Ward Casscells, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, and the surgeons general of the Army, Navy and Air Force also efforts to help address psychological issues. Steps include recruiting more mental health professionals, providing prompt care and extending outreach programs to military personnel and their families.

The military is “charging their battle buddies, enlisted leaders and their company commanders to identify people who are struggling,” Casscells said. “Early detection is important.”

Rep. Susan Davis, who heads the military personnel committee, urged further improvements.

Mental health “weighs heavily upon the readiness of our force, our ability to retain combat veterans and our obligation to care for those who volunteer to serve our nation,” said Davis, D-Calif.

The increase in military suicides has dramatized the issue. The Army said recently that as many as 121 soldiers committed suicide last year, more than double the number reported in 2001.

Casscells said that although the suicide rate is below that of the civilian population, it is of serious concern.

Chris Scheuerman’s travails over his son’s suicide, which he earlier shared with The Associated Press for an extensive story, included both frustrations over how his son was treated and obstacles in getting information about his death.

He told lawmakers that three weeks before Jason’s death, the family contacted the Army about suicidal e-mails they received from the private. The family said it got no response from the Army.

Jason Scheuerman displayed erratic behavior, including putting the muzzle of his weapon in his mouth. Also, the base chaplain had concerns about his well-being. Nonetheless, the base psychologist told commanders to send the soldier back to his unit because he was capable of feigning mental illness to get out of the Army.

Soldiers with mental health issues should be afforded a second opinion with a civilian psychologist, by teleconference if necessary, Scheuerman said. “It should be mandatory for psychologists to contact family to gather pertinent information,” he said. “If they had called us there would have been a different outcome.”

Gutteridge related how he began suffering from nightmares, anger, “horrible thoughts” and heavy drinking after he was redeployed from Iraq to Germany last year. “Reliving the horror of evacuating fallen soldiers’ and Marines’ remains as well as searching through body bags for dog tags and watching soldiers die was too much.”

But when his condition worsened, he was told it would be three weeks before he could get an appointment with his nurse practitioner or a doctor. “The only way to get immediate help was to be suicidal,” he said.

Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., said the system had failed Jason Scheuerman and others. The military, he said, is “intent on treating this as a public relations problem rather than a mental health problem. I’m hopeful this is beginning to change.”

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