Demanding care at Fort Hood

February 10, 2010

FORT HOOD, Texas--Activists gathered at the east gate entrance of the Army base here January 15 for a daylong protest drawing attention to the over-medicating of the soldiers and the lack of mental health resources and counseling.

Demonstrators rotated in and out so that about 30 people were there at any time between 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the rain and cold. The event was organized by organized by Pfc. Michael Kern, a member of the Fort Hood chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and Under the Hood Café, a local coffeehouse and outreach center.

Under the Hood counsels soldiers returning from war and offers basic services such as referrals for legal advice and information on GI rights. "If it wasn't for Under the Hood, I'd be dead," Kern said after the protest.

All eyes were on Fort Hood on November 5, 2009, after the shooting of 13 GIs stationed at Fort Hood by Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan. The incident drew sympathy from around the world, but it was also used to reinforce prejudice against Muslims.

The media left unanswered deeper and more challenging questions about the state of U.S. military establishment and the mental and emotional state of our soldiers. The shootings led to an investigation into Hasan's alleged connections to Islamic radicals, but not into the everyday standards and practices of the military base itself.

When President Barack Obama visited Fort Hood to offer his condolences to the victims of the shooting, the GIs were told to line up for their chance to shake the president's hand.

Kern was prepared for the president's visit and attempted to hand him a letter written on behalf of the IVAW demanding that the military radically overhaul its mental health care system and halt the practice of repeated deployment of the same troops. Although he couldn't hand the letter directly to the president due to security reasons, the letter did reach the president.

Kern said that after he knew Obama had received the letter from the IVAW, he wrote an e-mail to the president outlining many GI concerns. He told the president that he was planning on paying him a visit to talk about the issues on behalf of the IVAW. But after Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, he "realized [Obama] was the same as Bush."

KERN EXPLAINED that he had joined the military with "hopes of doing right for all of humanity." He said that he didn't join the Army for the money, but because he believed in the mission of the Army and that when he joined he supported the war.

All of that changed when he killed a child in Iraq. After he returned to the states, he was transferred to the Warrior Transition Brigade, where he saw many soldiers who were missing limbs and who were, he said, "messed up in the head." Kern then found Under the Hood Café and joined the IVAW.

Under the Hood Café manager Cynthia Thomas said that the coffeehouse concept originated in the 1960s during the GI movement against the Vietnam War. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas began working with the IVAW to create a house near Fort Hood, since it's the largest U.S. military base in the world.

"The troops are over-medicated. We see it all the time," Thomas said. "Post-traumatic stress disorder has been more serious, especially since the November 5 shooting."

Thomas said that counselors sometimes have to drive GIs to their appointments and to the base because they are so heavily medicated that they can't drive themselves. Many have chronic migraines that keep them from driving she said. "On average, most of the soldiers I have talked to take 20 to 25 medications per day, and some look as though they are in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease--some actually stumble from their meds," Under the Hood counselor Matt Litaker said.

An active-duty soldier came back to the cafe after meeting protesters outside Fort Hood. The 20-year-old had suffered has a traumatic brain injury after injuries he received in Iraq. "They expect you to be the perfect soldier and the perfect civilian," he said. "The government expects us to be bipolar--to separate work life from home life."

Kern pulled out his current medication prescription list. A total of 47 different medications had been prescribed to him within the last 180 days.

Kern said that he believes that the government and pharmaceutical companies are testing drugs on the soldiers in war. He said that soldiers were given an H1N1 vaccine that had not been FDA approved, and that later on after GIs had taken it, it was recalled. He also said that the Army is giving the soldiers Botox injections for their brain nerves and for pain, and that the procedure isn't FDA approved.

Could there be something more to the Fort Hood shooting than Islamist extremism? Hasan himself was a psychiatrist, prescribing medications to soldiers in order to make them "deployable," and was about to be deployed to Afghanistan before the shooting. What happened on November 5, 2009, was truly devastating--and should serve as an eye-opener about conditions for our soldiers.

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