When war comes home

August 11, 2009

Nicole Colson examines revelations about the acts of violence committed by soldiers returned from Iraq--and how the military is trying to evade responsibility.

"I TOLD them he was a walking time bomb."

That's how Teresa Hernandez remembers describing her son Anthony Marquez--a soldier in the Army's 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment--to his sergeant at Fort Carson, Colo., after Marquez returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Teresa had become alarmed, she told the Associated Press, because her son "was showing signs of violent behavior, abusing alcohol and pain pills, and carrying a gun."

But rather than take her concerns seriously, the sergeant dismissed them--and even used his mother's phone call to berate Marquez, taunting him about it.

In 2006, Marquez became the first soldier from his unit to murder someone in the U.S. after a tour in Iraq. Three days before he was scheduled to be honorably discharged because of a dispute over a marijuana sale, he used a stun gun to shock a drug dealer in Widefield, Colo., and then shot and killed him.

But Anthony Marquez wasn't the only soldier from his unit to kill at home. In all, 14 Fort Carson soldiers--including 10 infantrymen from the 4th Brigade Combat Team--have been accused of murder, attempted murder or manslaughter after coming back from Iraq between 2005 and 2008. Four more soldiers from other Fort Carson units committed suicide during the same period.

Combat exposure and post-traumatic stress are factors for soldiers who commit violence back at home
Combat exposure and post-traumatic stress are factors for soldiers who commit violence back at home (U.S. Army)

Most of those accused of killing were from a 500-soldier unit within the brigade, called the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, which nicknamed itself the "Lethal Warriors."

According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, the list of alleged violent incidents includes:

-- The rape and murder of 19-year-old Judilianna Lawrence last October. Prosecutors have charged a Fort Carson soldier.

The killing of Cesar Ramirez Ibanez and Amairany Cervantes, who were mowed down with an AK-47. A soldier is charged.

The shooting death of Spc. Kevin Shields in December 2007. Three soldiers are in prison for that.

A few months earlier, Pfc. Robert James was shot to death in a robbery. Two soldiers are doing time for it.

Before that, a taxi driver in Pueblo, Colo., was gunned down by a Fort Carson GI, who has since been convicted...

One soldier killed his infant.

Another killed a friend with a fireplace poker.

Another killed his wife and then himself.

Taken together, the crimes were so startling that, once the media began asking questions about the possible link between these violent incidents and the soldiers' military service, the Army began a study of Fort Carson servicemen.

What else to read

The Colorado Springs Gazette has a two-part series, "Casualties of War, Part I" and "Casualties of War, Part II," detailing the crimes committed by Fort Carson soldiers, including interviews with soldiers.

Salon.com's Mark Benjamin has done some of the best writing about the Army's neglect of soldiers' mental health problems and the consequences in "Coming Home: The Army's Fatal Neglect."

The 2008 Rand Corporation study "Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences and Services to Assist Recovery," details the levels of untreated post-traumatic stress among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last month, the Army released the results of that study, which admits that combat stress and mental health issues, combined with substance abuse problems, contributed to the violence. Soldiers who see more combat and have more of their comrades killed may be more likely to find trouble when they come home, the study said.

The investigation suggested "a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes" and stated that its "findings are consistent with recent research on combat exposure and subsequent behavior outcomes among soldiers."

In other words, this kind of violence is what can happen when the war comes home.

Yet despite the findings of its own study, the military predictably downplayed the effects of war on soldiers' behavior. Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker stressed, for example, that the Army was unable to identify any "single factor or grouping of factors" to explain the cluster of violent crimes committed at Fort Carson since 2005.

According to the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service: "The study did not reveal any one single cause, but rather a comprehensive list of individual predisposing factors, such as prior criminal behavior, drug or alcohol abuse, prior behavioral issues and barriers to seeking behavioral health care."

"INDIVIDUAL PREDISPOSING factors" is the military's polite way of saying that it shouldn't be held responsible for the breakdown and trauma suffered by soldiers--or the violence they commit as a result. Certain factors--like combat--may have acted as stressors, according to the study, but the core problem is always with the individual soldiers, as far as the Pentagon is concerned.

This has become a common line from the military. Soldiers back from Iraq who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) report being told that their psychological conditions were "pre-existing"--in what many claim is an effort by the government to refuse paying for treatment.

According to official army statistics, the number of U.S. service members wounded in Iraq is 31,000, but others estimates put the real number at least three times higher. The statistics don't include traumatic brain injuries that often go undiagnosed, or cases of PTSD that the military denies--instead attributing cases of depression, anxiety disorders, inability to concentrate and night terrors to pre-existing "personality disorders," a designation that will follow soldiers around for the rest of their lives (and can prevent them, ironically, from getting VA benefits and treatment).

A soldier may have been well enough to get into the military and be sent into battle (often multiple times). But once they're ready to be discharged and are experiencing symptoms of PTSD or other behavioral problems, the military often "discovers" they had an underlying mental illness or disorder that should have disqualified them from service in the first place--leaving them potentially ineligible for benefits at the time they need help the most.

According to "Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences and Services to Assist Recovery," a study of troops released by the Rand Corporation last year, some 300,000 U.S. troops are suffering from major depression or post traumatic stress from serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 320,000 suffered brain injuries.

Yet only 43 percent reported ever being evaluated by a physician for their head injuries. And only 53 percent of service members with PTSD or depression had sought help during the year prior to the study.

As Salon.com reporter Mark Benjamin--whose excellent series "Coming Home: The Army's Fatal Neglect" detailed the downward spiral of several Fort Carson soldiers accused of committing violent crimes--noted, the Army's claims that there was no direct "cause" for stateside violence has a perverse rationale. "Without causation, there is no way to establish how the murders could've been prevented," Benjamin wrote. "Without causation, there is also limited accountability."

Incredibly, Army officials even seemed to blame soldiers themselves for not seeking help, saying for example that soldiers in the 3rd Brigade were more willing to ask for care for their "emerging behavioral health problems--alcohol and drug problems" as opposed to the members of the 4th Brigade (the unit of the majority of those who are accused of committing violent acts).

Yet as Mark Benjamin pointed out, Schoomaker "also claimed that the experiences of the 4th and 3rd Brigades in combat were 'similar.' That's not what's indicated in the report--the 4th Brigade, where the murder suspects were clustered, had eight times more combat deaths than the 3rd. Moreover, the report indicated that the Army itself played a role in denying care to the soldiers--half, some with suicide issues, were sent back to Iraq 'early,' according to the report."

DESPITE THE military's conclusions, soldiers and their families have a different story to tell about the role their experiences in combat played in shaping their actions after the war.

Anthony Marquez told the Gazette that his combat experience made him predisposed to commit murder. "If I was just a guy off the street, I might have hesitated to shoot," Marquez told the Gazette in an interview from the Bent County Correctional Facility, where he is currently serving a 30-year prison term. "But after Iraq, it was just natural."

Kenneth Eastridge, an infantry specialist who served two tours in Iraq and has nearly 80 "confirmed kills"--and who is now serving 10 years in prison for accessory to murder--had a similar story to tell in an interview with the Associated Press. "The Army pounds it into your head until it is instinct: Kill everybody, kill everybody," he said. "And you do. Then they just think you can just come home and turn it off."

As the Associated Press noted:

Both [Marquez and Eastridge] were wounded, sent back into action and saw friends and officers killed in their first deployment. On numerous occasions, explosions shredded the bodies of civilians, others were slain in sectarian violence--and the unit had to bag the bodies.

"Guys with drill bits in their eyes," Eastridge said. "Guys with nails in their heads."

And in addition to these horrors, some of the Fort Carson soldiers say they witnessed or participated in acts of brutality, including the murder of civilians and other war crimes.

Anthony Marquez, for example, described the killing of an Iraqi boy to the Denver Post in 2007:

He remembers the car advancing toward a checkpoint. "I was the gunner on the Humvee. I told my sergeant I was going to give them a warning shot, and I shot some warning rounds. We didn't know what it was, so I had to take the car out," Marquez said. He killed the driver, an old man, and a child who was about 11.

Soldier John Needham, who allegedly beat a woman to death in 2008, had, according to his father, repeatedly tried to get treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a December 2007 letter to the Inspector General's Office of Fort Carson, Needham--who earned a Purple Heart in Iraq--detailed a list of alleged war crimes committed by members of his unit in Iraq, including commanding officers.

In one instance, an Iraqi was shot "without cause or provocation" by a staff sergeant. When a private asked to administer first aid to the man, Needham said he was told no, and to "let him bleed out." In another instance, Needham says an Iraqi man was killed despite the fact that the unit had no evidence that he was an insurgent or terrorist. He wrote:

Although I did not personally witness the killing, I did observe [REDACTED] dismembering the body and parading of it while it was tied to the hood of a Humvee around the Muhalla neighborhood, while the interpreter blared out warnings in Arabic over the loudspeaker. I have a photo that shows [REDACTED] removing the victim's brains.

The list of atrocities continues, with Needham describing at least one point-blank execution of an injured Iraqi, and the shooting of an Iraqi teenager riding his bicycle down the street. As Needham noted in his letter, "My experiences have taken a terrible toll on me. I suffer from PTSD and depression. I had no way to stop the ugly actions of my unit. When I refused to participate, they began to abuse and harass me."

According to the Associated Press, the Army's criminal investigation division interviewed unit soldiers but said it couldn't substantiate the allegations that Needham had made.

According to Salon.com's Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna, Needham:

brought home photos from the spring and summer of 2007 that showed the gore he saw with the 2-12. One picture showed a dead body, still dressed in traditional Iraqi clothing, with a rotting skull for a head. Another picture showed an Iraqi with the top part of his head blown off, covered in blood, eyes open, his body placed in a black bag alongside his brains...

While still in Iraq, Needham sought help. He wrote to his father that he saw a doctor and was given a small handful of Zoloft pills, which treat depression and anxiety, and Ambien for sleeplessness. It didn't seem to work. "I'm stressed out to the point of completely losing it," Needham later wrote in an e-mail to his father. "The squad leader brushed me off and said suck it up."

IN 2007, while still in Iraq, Needham attempted to shoot himself in the head--he was prevented by a comrade who knocked the gun away. Yet despite his suicide attempt, he was never sent for a psychiatric evaluation. Instead, he was punished--confined for more than two weeks and told that he could face charges and possible time in military prison for illegal discharge of a weapon.

"After he tried to kill himself, they said he was a criminal," John Needham's father, Mike Needham, told Benjamin and de Yoanna. "I couldn't believe it. I called his commander to try to say that John might be suffering from combat stress. I offered him literature. [Lt. Col. Michael] told me John deserved to be in military prison. When I argued, he said, 'Fuck off,' and hung up the phone."

After Mike Needham intervened for his son, asking Fort Carson's inspector general for help, John Needham finally received treatment and a diagnosis of PTSD and depression. After being released from Walter Reed Army Hospital, he was sent back to Fort Carson where, according to his father, he faced abuse, which he recorded in notes he kept about his treatment. According to Benjamin and de Yoanna:

On November 16, 2007, Needham, still wondering if he'd face charges stemming from his suicide attempt in Iraq, wrote in black pen that he felt drowsy and laid his head on a desk. According to Needham's notes, a staff sergeant found him there and yelled, "This is no time to sleep." The sergeant then threatened Needham, saying, "I will break your fucking face." Needham told the sergeant to go ahead. The sergeant closed in, inches from Needham's face, and "called me a pussy and a scared little kid," Needham wrote.

Weeks later, after receiving an official transfer to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, according to Benjamin and de Yoanna, John Needham was "charged with 'patterns of misconduct' for failing to appear in formation, insubordination to superiors, and other problems. To Mike Needham, it seemed like the Army, which had acknowledged that John had PTSD, was now punishing his son for displaying the symptoms."

His family was unable to get John the intensive help he was in need of and, within two months of his honorable discharge, John Needham attacked police at his home--while nude and drunk. In another room, the police found 19-year-old Jacqwelyn Villagomez, who had been severely beaten. She later died.

Needham's family believes he had a post-traumatic flashback, and lost control. He is currently on bail as he awaits trial and is receiving inpatient treatment at a VA facility.

Needham's case is just one of many caused by the military's turning soldiers into the human equivalent of loaded weapons--and then failing to help them deal with mental health and other health problems, as well as the transition back to civilian life.

As the violence of Fort Carson soldiers shows, the Army doesn't only have blood on its hands for the civilians injured and murdered in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is responsible for the deaths and ruined lives of soldiers driven past the breaking point--and civilians back at home unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire.

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