Like politicians, institutional bureaucracies know the best way to bury bad news is to release it late on a Friday afternoon.
This is exactly what the Pentagon did in the waning twilight last Friday when investigators publicly unleashed a searing, 325-page report on the string of shootings last May in a combat stress and mental health clinic in Baghdad’s Camp Liberty that left four soldiers and one sailor dead. After repeatedly reaching out for help, Army Sgt. John Russell stole a gun from an MP, walked into the clinic where he had been treated briefly an hour earlier and opened fire.
The PR ploy worked. The report was ignored over the weekend by virtually every media outlet except Stars and Stripes. No doubt the Pentagon was relieved because the report tears a strip off the Army for not giving commanders in Iraq – and, by extension, Afghanistan – the necessary tools, training and guidance to handle at-risk soldiers.
So, once again, the Army fails to support its own troops and, worse, it’s failing and flailing over the same basic issue in 2006 that dragged the Army kicking and screaming into 21st century after it was criticized for punishing soldiers who sought mental health help during or after war zone duty tours. Supposedly, the Army changed its policy and began actively encouraging all personnel to get treatment without fear of retribution.
OK, so soldiers and officers can go for help without risking their career. The problem is the top brass didn’t bother to tell field commanders – from sergeants to senior officers – how to spot a troubled trooper or what to do with them when they suspected a problem.
A staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, who is not authorised to speak with reporters on-the-record, told me on Monday, “We have no idea how to budge the Army into doing something positive that actually works” when it comes to dealing with either enlisted personnel or officers who are suspected of having mental health issues.
“(Senior officers) come before the committee and say all the right things,” this staffer continued, “but it looks like they forget all about it the moment they walk out of the hearing room.”
The report damns what is, as my dad’s father would say in a thick dialect as he kvetched about lukewarm soup at Plotnik’s deli in Milwaukee, “Oy, a farshlepteh krenk” – a chronic complaint.
In doing its investigation, the Army interviewed Russell’s fellow grunts, commanders and doctors to trace the events leading to the shooting. The report chronicles widespread failures – one after another, in Russell’s case – to implement the Multi-National Force-Iraq mental health policy. No one from non-commissioned officers to field commanders are provided direction to carry out preventive mental health measures, according to the report.
In a statement that is both disturbing and sad, Russell’s sergeant said, “What I don’t understand is from the time a soldier has been identified that they may have behavioral health problems, what do you really do with them?”
The Army report insists that majors through lieutenant colonels “require precise instruction in effective suicide and behavioral problem remediation measures to effectively support our behavioral health professionals,” the report states.
At the unit level, “there is no real conception of when to command refer a soldier for assistance.”
Leaders with Russell’s unit “admitted they lack the fundamental skills to deal with behavioral health issues,” and had no formal policies or procedures to guide them, according to the report.
It gets worse. The investigation says there is no clearly defined procedure to track and monitor the issues once they are identified. Russell’s commanders were not aware he had threatened suicide or that his immediate supervisors had removed the bolt from his gun.
Who’s In Charge?
In Paddy Chayefsky’s great 1971 film The Hospital, George C. Scott – a worn down and worn out physician – explains the inexplicable death of a patient by saying, “We just neglected him to death.”
In a sense, the Army neglected Sgt. Russell to death – and the deaths of five other people.
The report details how the Army tells units dealing with a potentially suicidal soldier to use the “buddy system” and “unit watch” without providing “even notional reference to describe” as to what the terms actually mean in real life. They have been common in the Army for years, but there is no Army-wide standard or instruction for how to carry them out. Russell was supposedly on “unit watch” in the days leading up to the shootings yet his unit had no guidelines on how to actually do this.
“We’re looking into whether there will be hearings on this,” the Congressional aide told me. “The problem is, it seems like no one is in charge when it comes to mental illness in the Army.”
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I wrote this piece originally for the LA Progressive, where it appeared earlier today.
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