Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense says there is more at stake here than the wishes of one family. “The Army failed to follow their own rules when the Army deployed an unfit soldier,” he said. “Until there is accountability, the Army will continue to send unfit soldiers back to war with fatal consequences.”
A local recruit’s tragic death illustrates how the military has redeployed soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan despite mental heath concerns
February 20, 2009, San Luis Obispo, California – On August 26, 2007, U.S. Army Specialist John Fish had already served a tour in Iraq and was training for a second deployment, to Afghanistan, when he walked into the New Mexico desert leaving a suicide note behind. “I have some things to take care of,” the 19-year-old wrote. “I won’t be coming back.”
Three days later, an Army search party found his body; a bullet lodged in his skull, service weapon by his side. Fish’s ashes were flown back to the Central Coast, to his mother and stepsister in Paso Robles and a memorial service at Camp Roberts.
“The Army was very good about showing up and trying to make arrangements,” Fish’s mother Cathy told New Times. In addition to the funeral, the military offered the family grief counseling and organized the mailing of hundreds of condolences cards from all over the country. But she hastened to add, “They can never bring my son back.”
Today, John Fish’s remains rest in a small, wooden, U.S. military-issued box on a shelf in the family living room, where a photograph of a uniformed, crew-cut soldier graces the modest home’s entryway. John’s mother works the night shift as a licensed vocational nurse at nearby Vineyard Hills Health Center.
During a recent interview, she repeatedly shied away from discussing the Army’s investigation into her son’s death (the Army investigates all suspected suicides), preferring instead to remember his life. He loved such slapstick movies as Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, and Spaceballs. “Everybody liked him,” she said. “He had a whole entourage of friends and they would get together and play at LAN parties.”
“We’re really proud of John,” she said, choking back tears. “I just feel badly that it ended the way it did. I gave them an all-American boy and they returned a box; and there are a lot of other American families all over the country experiencing the same thing.”
Indeed, John Fish is one of an increasing number of American soldiers who’ve committed suicide after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army reports 117 active duty Army soldiers killed themselves in 2007, the year Fish took his life. At the time, it was a 26-year high. But that record was quickly eclipsed by the 2008 Army figure of 128 suicides, with 15 more deaths under investigation. (Suicides for the Marines also have been increasing, with 41 in 2008, up from 33 in 2007 and 25 in 2006.) The longer these wars go on, it seems, the faster soldiers die by their own hand. In January 2009, more American soldiers committed suicide than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
The crisis has gotten so bad, normally taciturn Pentagon officials have begun to speak publicly about what some veterans’ advocates are calling a suicide epidemic. “The uptick, most recently, in suicide—very troubling,” Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a recent Pentagon news conference.
“We’re trying to understand, is this cumulative?” Cartwright said. “Is there something that is a trigger event here? We’re working with several agencies, on the national health side, to try to understand this.”
Veterans groups say the reasons for the rise in soldier suicides are clear. They are the product of a deadly combination: the guerilla nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Pentagon’s decision to send the same fighting men and women to war over and over again.
“The obvious reason [for the rise in suicides] is the only one they’re not willing to look at,” argues Penny Coleman, author of the book Flashback: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Suicide and the Lessons of War. More than 30 years ago, Coleman was widowed when her first husband took his own life after returning home from Vietnam. “Whenever the military talks about suicide, the stressors they talk about are relationship issues, and financial issues, and work issues. They’re ignoring the elephant in the room and it makes me want to scream. It’s combat, and that’s the one thing that they don’t want to talk about because it would undermine the entire war. It’s time for that to be acknowledged.”
This time around, the soldiers’ combat experience is even more brutal than thirty years before. Unlike Vietnam, there are no R&R locations in Iraq, where soldiers can blow off steam in bars and clubs. In addition, because of the draft, the vast majority of troops sent to Southeast Asia served only one 12-month tour. This time around, more than 717,000 soldiers have deployed at least twice to the war zones. Some, like John Fish, have been ordered deployed for a second tour even after telling military doctors they’re thinking about committing suicide.
John Fish never told his mother about his experiences in Iraq but he was more forthcoming with his best friend C.J. McDougal. Before Fish joined the Army, the two of them would spend hours playing computer games—Fish especially liked first-person shooter games where the player shoots at images on the screen.
Fish loved the Pentagon-developed America’s Army, which was introduced as a recruiting tool in July 2002. He saw the game as more realistic, preferring it to other games in which the player shoots Nazis, zombies, or aliens. “He liked guns,” C.J. said. “I don’t know what it was. He was in love with everything that had to do with projectiles. He would say to me, ‘Could you run 3,200 feet per second? You better be able to, because I know your head’s not bulletproof.’”
When he turned 17, Fish dropped out of Paso Robles High School, took the GED, and joined the Army. He would become an expert at guns and ammunition, he told his friends and family, and would open up a weapons repair shop when he got out of the military.
Shortly thereafter, in December 2005, John Fish deployed to Baghdad with the 41st Fires Brigade. While in Iraq his mood darkened, and on March 11, 2006 Army documents show Fish sought out the military’s mental health practitioners, “complaining of being depressed and lack of motivation because he felt he was not being used effectively.” While he had been trained as an ammunition specialist, he was primarily being used as a radio operator.
“Fish preferred to stay busy and had a hard time as a [radio operator],” the Army reported in an investigation published after his death: “While in Iraq, SPC Fish was highly motivated when assigned tasks to accomplish, but was very quiet and reserved and seemed to be depressed more than normal.”
His friend C.J. gives another reason for John’s slide into depression. “He’d seen war and wasn’t too thrilled about it anymore,” his friend said. Real war wasn’t like the first-person shooter games he played at home. Mortars exploded regularly on his post, and one—a dud that failed to explode—landed just a few feet away from him.
The feeling of killing changed him, too.
“On one of the missions he was sent on, he was told to clear a room: to throw a grenade through the window, then knock down the door and open up and fire on anything and everything,” C.J. said. “After the smoke cleared, he saw he had killed four to six women and children.” It is not unusual for soldiers to be assigned to a temporary combat mission and returned to regular responsibilities when there’s a shortage of troops for the combat task. This has been a major issue in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Because of the shortage of available troops, soldiers are being sent out on combat missions regardless of whether or not they are trained to properly carry them out.
Regardless of the reason for Fish’s decline, everybody around him—his mother, friends, and the Army—all noticed his condition improved dramatically after he returned to the United States. After initially being withdrawn and overly quiet, John Fish, a hardened war veteran at age 18, began to relax and be social again.
But then, when he learned his unit was being redeployed to the war zone, Fish again began to slip away. On August 17, 2007 he told a psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas that he was depressed and had thoughts of suicide “mostly at night when he had nothing to do.”
The psychiatrist diagnosed Fish with Dysthymic Disorder (a form of depression) but nonetheless cleared him to train for his second deployment “without limitations.”?
“There was nothing in Fish’s behavior that threw up any immediate red flags,” the Army’s suicide investigation reads.
Less than two weeks later, John Fish walked into the desert and shot himself in the head.
“The notice of a second deployment into war can be compared to telling a rape survivor that the victim must walk down a dark alley constantly for one year and be repeatedly raped again and again,” explains Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran who heads up the group Veterans for Common Sense. “Military studies have found that multiple deployments significantly increase the risk of mental health conditions by as much as 50 percent,” he notes. Since the start of the Iraq war, Sullivan’s organization has documented the suicides of many soldiers and Marines who, like Fish, took their own lives after being notified of a second tour.
The military’s decision to redeploy John Fish appears to be a direct result of one of President George W. Bush’s least noticed policy changes. With wars raging in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush Administration was so desperate for soldiers that it changed the military’s rules to allow the redeployment of soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan even after they had been diagnosed with mental illnesses caused by their first tour.
In December 2006, the Pentagon released a set of guidelines that allow commanders to redeploy soldiers with a “psychiatric disorder in remission, or whose residual symptoms do not impair duty performance.” The guidelines set out a long list of conditions for when a soldier could and could not be returned for an additional tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those on lithium, for example, would not be allowed to deploy while those on another class of medications similar to Prozac were eligible to be sent to the front.
In June 2008, nearly a year after Fish’s death, Time magazine published a damning investigative report titled “America’s Medicated Army.”
“For the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of U.S. combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” wrote reporter Mark Thompson. “Data contained in the Army’s fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report indicate that, according to an anonymous survey of U.S. troops taken last fall, about 12% of combat troops in Iraq and 17% of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope.”
So far, President Barack Obama has not reversed those policies. His plan for a surge of more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan (which enjoys bipartisan support in Congress) means he will likely have to continue the controversial policies as a means of supplying enough bodies at the front to keep the war going.
“I’ve been very concerned about Afghanistan,” Congresswoman Lois Capps said during a recent discussion with New Times about the crises facing returning veterans. “I trust our new president understands the nuances and complexities of the situation.”
“I’m not a pacifist,” she said, “but we cannot see war as an answer. It creates so many problems and we cannot avoid its enormous cost. These costs need to be counted in ahead of time and even then it’s going to be even more than we expect.”
Two weeks before his death, John’s mother flew to Killeen, Texas for a special mother-son weekend outside the gates of Fort Hood. “I snatched him up,” she said. “We rented a room in a Best Western-style hotel with a pool out front and I wouldn’t let him out of my sight.”
She didn’t notice anything wrong. “He had a nice new apartment and a brand new car,” she told me. “He had proposed to a girl. He told me he was excited because he knew when he came back from his second tour he would be done with the Army.”
Cathy Fish brought DVDs for them to watch together, including the slapstick film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. They watched a mini-marathon of the Discovery Channel series Dirty Jobs, where host Mike Rowe profiles what it’s like to hold some of America’s most disgusting jobs, including garbage collector, oil-rig worker, portable toilet cleaner, sewer inspector, and crab fisherman.
“Everything seemed fine,” she said. “We didn’t find out until later, when the Army released its investigation, that he had told them that he was depressed. It was a complete surprise when he died.”
Author Penny Coleman said that kind of last, happy interaction is common as suicide victims reach their final days. “Very often when people decide that’s the route they’re going to take it appears to those around them they’ve gotten better,” she explained. “Once they’ve decided that’s the way out it can be a kind of relief. In such a circumstance when they enjoy their time with family and friends, what they’re actually doing is saying goodbye.”
Coleman said her first husband Daniel did that after he came back from Vietnam. “He visited everybody he loved before he killed himself,” she said. “That was something that was really hard on me, that he seemed to come back to life in the weeks before he died.”
On August 20, 2007 John Fish departed Fort Hood with an advanced party of his brigade on route to Doña Ana House Camp in the New Mexico desert. He and other personnel in his section were responsible for setting up the ammunition supply point and ensuring the living quarters were set up for the unit’s pre-deployment training exercises, but he was no longer committed to the task.
“During this time, SPC Fish was counseled several times for his personal hygiene and criticized for his driving abilities,” the Army’s suicide investigator wrote. On August 26, 2007, one of Fish’s noncommissioned officers asked to see his clean laundry and made him empty his laundry bag and show him. “This offended SPC Fish and he stated that he did not want to conform to their rules. Later that night,” the Army report reads, “SPC Fish was seen on his bunk writing in his notebook and when asked what he was writing SPC Fish replied, ‘Nothing.’”
The next morning, Fish was reported missing and his assigned weapon was also missing. “A suicide note was found on SPC Fish’s bunk stating that he had something to take care of and would not be back and not to bother looking for him. It also mentioned that he finalized his plan while driving to work” the day before.
A search party including more than 1,000 soldiers was formed. As a precaution, all five area schools were placed in lockdown. Two days later, Fish was found dead in the New Mexico desert after an aerial team spotted his remains about 1.5 miles from the camp.
John Fish’s family and friends don’t want to dwell on the 19-year-old’s suicide and they haven’t pushed for more detailed investigations or the punishment or prosecution of the officers who ordered Fish redeployed despite his psychiatric diagnosis. “What’s the point?” his mother asked rhetorically. “It wouldn’t change the fact that he’s dead. Besides, since I wasn’t there, I’ll never really know what happened.”
But Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense says there is more at stake here than the wishes of one family. “The Army failed to follow their own rules when the Army deployed an unfit soldier,” he said. “Until there is accountability, the Army will continue to send unfit soldiers back to war with fatal consequences.”