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Mental health problems still stigmatized in the military

Pentagon making effort to improve treatment, culture

Email|Print| Text size + By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post / December 2, 2007

WASHINGTON - In a nondescript conference room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, First Lieutenant Elizabeth Whiteside listened last week as an Army prosecutor outlined the criminal case against her. The charges: attempting suicide and endangering the life of another soldier while serving in Iraq.

Her hands trembled as Major Stefan Wolfe, the prosecutor, asserted that Whiteside, now a psychiatric outpatient at Walter Reed, should be court-martialed. After seven years of exemplary service, the 25-year-old Army reservist faces the possibility of life in prison if she is tried and convicted.

Military psychiatrists at Walter Reed who examined Whiteside after she recovered from her self-inflicted gunshot wound diagnosed her with a severe mental disorder, possibly triggered by the stresses of a war zone. But Whiteside's superiors considered her mental illness an excuse for criminal conduct, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

At the hearing, Wolfe, who had already warned Whiteside's lawyer of the risk of using a "psychobabble" defense, pressed a senior psychiatrist at Walter Reed to justify his diagnosis.

"I'm not here to play legal games," Colonel George Brandt responded angrily, according to a recording of the hearing. "I am here out of the genuine concern for a human being that's breaking and that is broken. She has a severe and significant illness. Let's treat her as a human being."

In recent months, prodded by outrage over poor conditions at Walter Reed, the Army has made a highly publicized effort to improve treatment of Iraq veterans and change a culture that stigmatizes mental illness.

The Pentagon has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to new research and to care for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, and on Friday announced that it had opened a new center for psychological health in Arlington, Va.

But outside the Pentagon, the military still largely deals with mental health issues in an ad hoc way, often relying on the judgment of combat-hardened commanders whose understanding of mental illness is vague or misinformed. The stigma around psychological wounds can still be seen in the smallest of Army policies.

While family members of soldiers recovering at Walter Reed from physical injuries are provided free lodging and a per diem to care for their loved ones, families of psychiatric outpatients usually have to pay their own way.

"It's a disgrace," said Tom Whiteside, a former Marine and retired federal law enforcement officer who lost his free housing after his daughter's physical wounds had healed enough that she could be moved to the psychiatric ward. A charity organization, the Yellow Ribbon Fund, provides him with an apartment near Walter Reed so he can be near his daughter.

Under military law, soldiers who attempt suicide can be prosecuted under the theory that it affects the order and discipline of a unit and brings discredit to the armed forces. In reality, criminal charges are extremely rare unless there is evidence that the attempt was an effort to avoid service or endangered others.

At one point, Whiteside almost accepted the Army's offer to resign in lieu of court-martial. But it meant she would have to explain for the rest of her life why she was not given an honorable discharge. Her lawyer also believed that she would have been left without the medical care and benefits she needed.

No decision has yet been made on whether Whiteside's case will proceed to court-martial. The commander of the US Army Military District of Washington, Major General Richard Rowe Jr., who has jurisdiction over the case, "must determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the charges against Lieutenant Whiteside and recommend how to dispose of the charges," said his spokesman.

Whiteside became executive officer of an Army support unit in 2005. She was eventually assigned as a platoon leader in the 329th Medical Company (Ground Ambulance) at the Camp Cropper detainee prison near Baghdad International Airport.

Whiteside, given the radio handle "Trauma Mama," supervised nine medics who worked the night shift at the prison.

The hours were brutal. Whiteside ate one meal a day, slept in two four-hour shifts and worked seven days a week. Her superiors credited her for her unit's success.

But the dynamics outside her unit were rockier. From the beginning, Whiteside and some of her female soldiers had conflicts with one of the company's male officers. They believed he hindered female promotions and undercut Whiteside's authority with her soldiers, according to Army investigative documents.

As the tensions with the officer increased, Whiteside said, she began suffering panic attacks. She stopped sleeping, she said, and started self-medicating with NyQuil and Benadryl.

Investigators said Whiteside was later found with blood on her neck and hands. When armed soldiers approached her, she discharged her weapon into her stomach.

At Walter Reed, Whiteside was diagnosed with a severe major depressive disorder and a personality disorder.

Tom Whiteside said the criminal charges threatened to unglue his daughter's already tenuous grip on recovery. "If they are doing this to her, what are they doing to those young PFCs without parents by their side?" he asked.

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