More mental health woes for the U.S. military

JASON SMITH/Getty Images for NASCAR Last month I blogged about the case of Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, an Army reservist facing court martial because she tried to commit suicide while serving in Iraq. Her story was part of the Washington Post‘s outstanding series, “Walter Reed and Beyond,” about the lives of vets returning from Iraq and ...

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596989_marines_08.jpg

JASON SMITH/Getty Images for NASCAR

Last month I blogged about the case of Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, an Army reservist facing court martial because she tried to commit suicide while serving in Iraq. Her story was part of the Washington Post's outstanding series, "Walter Reed and Beyond," about the lives of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, the New York Times is doing its part to cover the care of vets, this time from a different angle. The Times' series, "War Torn," is about veterans who have been charged with killings after returning home. The first part of the series discussed the trend in general, noting that there have been 121 cases of such tragic incidents and touching on some of those cases. The second part of the series appeared on the front page of Sunday's paper. It tells the tragic tale of the killing of 22-year-old Nicole Marie Speirs by 21-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Walter Rollo Smith, the father of their infant twins, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his war experiences in Iraq.

JASON SMITH/Getty Images for NASCAR

Last month I blogged about the case of Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, an Army reservist facing court martial because she tried to commit suicide while serving in Iraq. Her story was part of the Washington Post‘s outstanding series, “Walter Reed and Beyond,” about the lives of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, the New York Times is doing its part to cover the care of vets, this time from a different angle. The Times‘ series, “War Torn,” is about veterans who have been charged with killings after returning home. The first part of the series discussed the trend in general, noting that there have been 121 cases of such tragic incidents and touching on some of those cases. The second part of the series appeared on the front page of Sunday’s paper. It tells the tragic tale of the killing of 22-year-old Nicole Marie Speirs by 21-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Walter Rollo Smith, the father of their infant twins, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his war experiences in Iraq.

Speirs’s parents view the situation as a fatal incident of domestic violence. They worry that people are using her death to make a statement against the war. They hold Smith responsible for his actions. He doesn’t disagree:

I can’t completely, honestly say that, yes, PTSD was the sole cause of what I did. I don’t want to use it as a crutch. I’d feel like I was copping out of something I claim responsibility for. But I know for a fact that before I went to Iraq, there’s no way I would have taken somebody else’s life.”

Reading his account, it’s hard not to wonder if Speirs’s death could indeed have been prevented, if only Smith hadn’t fallen through the cracks. A formerly squeaky clean Mormon, Smith returned to Utah smoking, drinking, doubting God, and distraught over having killed civilians in Iraq. The Marines sent him to Quantico for a marksmanship course, and while on the firing range, he began to hallucinate about his experiences in Iraq. He had what can only be described as a breakdown. The Marines diagnosed him with PTSD, then discharged him, leaving him to seek treatment from veterans’ hospitals.

But it’s hard for someone who’s having mental difficulties to have the wherewithal to manage his or her own treatment. After Smith’s discharge, he intermittently sought help. He attended a group therapy session at a VA hospital, but never returned because none of the other attendees had similar war experiences to his. For awhile he took medication for anxiety, but stopped taking the pills when they didn’t work. He attempted suicide. He once called the cops and asked for help because he was having homicidal thoughts. But ultimately, he was left to deal with his mental health on his own. And so one day he disconnected, and drowned the mother of his children.

Read the entire story to learn more of the compelling details. But the bottom line is that this is a senseless tragedy. A young man with no history of violence, not even old enough to buy a beer, was sent into a war zone to fight for his country. And when he returned, troubled, he didn’t get the care that he needed. Now, a young mother is dead, and he’s in prison. There are no winners here.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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