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‘Mental Anguish and the Military’

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

In 2005 a mental health specialist at the Veterans Administration warned NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling that the military was not adequately caring for returning Iraq War veterans, who were exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in record numbers. Mr. Zwerdling thought he would make a few calls.
“Dozens upon dozens” of calls later, the six-part “Mental Anguish and the Military,” Zwerdling and NPR’s duPont Award-winning investigative series, revealed not just the serious mental health issues affecting a large number of Iraq War veterans (as many as 20% to 25%, by the military’s own estimate), but also the Army’s lack of adequate mental health care, made worse by the lack of compassion in some of the very personnel who are supposed to provide assistance.
Acting on advice from a military contact, Mr. Zwerdling focused on soldiers based at Fort Carson, Colo. “It took five months before anyone would talk to me,” Mr. Zwerdling said. Finally one staff sergeant agreed to be interviewed. “She said I was a persistent little prick,” Mr. Zwerdling said, “but she finally agreed to meet me.”
After a few soldiers opened up to him about their problems, Mr. Zwerdling said, he started “doing a chain. I’d say, ‘Do you know somebody else who’s going through this?’ And everybody knew somebody who was going through the same thing. So I’d ask them for names.”
At some point, Mr. Zwerdling said, he also started asking soldiers for their military records.
“From recruitment to the first-year exam to the return from Iraq, medical records showed the soldiers saw the base therapist, and what the therapist diagnosed,” Mr. Zwerdling said. “The counselor is writing down that this soldier’s marriage is falling apart, he can’t sleep, and when he does sleep he has terrible nightmares; he can’t have sex—and around that same date, every time, his personnel records show this guy’s sergeant is punishing him for something like not having a regulation haircut.”
When Mr. Zwerdling spoke to midlevel military personnel at Fort Carson, he found staff sergeants as young as 24 who spoke candidly about their contempt for people who had PTSD and thought “punishing these men was the right way to go.”
Mr. Zwerdling then approached top military brass, only to find that, again, no one would grant him an interview. “When the story came out, they basically said it was ‘astonishing drivel,’” Mr. Zwerdling said. “But [Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Kit Bond, R-Mo.,] announced they were going to investigate.” A Pentagon task force and other government agencies also have investigated, and the Army now says it is trying to address the mental health issues.
After the series aired, Mr. Zwerdling talked once more to the staff sergeant who had spoken most contemptuously about soldiers with PTSD. “The sergeant said, ‘After that interview I did a lot of thinking, and I realized I’m falling apart, too. So I’m in therapy now.’”
That remark made a big impact on Mr. Zwerdling. “One victory at a time,” he said.
Credits: Daniel Zwerdling, correspondent; Anne Hawke, producer; Ellen Weiss, vice president, news, NPR

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