FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) — As soldiers stream home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the biggest charity inside the U.S. military has been stockpiling tens of millions of dollars meant to help put returning fighters back on their feet, an Associated Press investigation shows.
Between 2003 and 2007 – as many military families dealt with long war deployments and increased numbers of home foreclosures – Army Emergency Relief grew into a $345 million behemoth. During those years, the charity packed away $117 million into its own reserves while spending just $64 million on direct aid, according to an AP analysis of its tax records.
Tax-exempt and legally separate from the military, AER projects a facade of independence but really operates under close Army control. The massive nonprofit – funded predominantly by troops – allows superiors to squeeze soldiers for contributions; forces struggling soldiers to repay loans – sometimes delaying transfers and promotions; and too often violates its own rules by rewarding donors, such as giving free passes from physical training, the AP found.
Founded in 1942, AER eases cash emergencies of active-duty soldiers and retirees and provides college scholarships for their families. Its emergency aid covers mortgage payments and food, car repairs, medical bills, travel to family funerals, and the like.
Instead of giving money away, though, the Army charity lent out 91 percent of its emergency aid during the period 2003-2007. For accounting purposes, the loans, dispensed interest-free, are counted as expenses only when they are not paid back.
During that same five-year period, the smaller Navy and Air Force charities both put far more of their own resources into aid than reserves. The Air Force charity kept $24 million in reserves while dispensing $56 million in total aid, which includes grants, scholarships and loans not repaid. The Navy charity put $32 million into reserves and gave out $49 million in total aid.
AER executives defend their operation, insisting they need to keep sizable reserves to be ready for future catastrophes.
“Look at the stock market,” said retired Col. Dennis Spiegel, AER’s deputy director for administration. Without the large reserve, he added, “We’d be in very serious trouble.”
But smaller civilian charities for service members and veterans say they are swamped by the desperate needs of recent years, with requests far outstripping ability to respond.
While independent on paper, Army Emergency Relief is housed, staffed and controlled by the U.S. Army.
That’s not illegal per se. Eric Smith, a spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, said the agency can’t offer an opinion on a particular charity’s activities. But Marcus Owens, former head of IRS charity oversight, said charities like AER can legally partner closely with a government agency.
However, he said, problems sometimes arise when their missions diverge. “There’s a bit of a tension when a government organization is operating closely with a charity,” he said.
Most charity watchdogs view 1-to-3 years of reserves as prudent, with more than that considered hoarding. Yet the American Institute of Philanthropy says AER holds enough reserves to last about 12 years at its current level of aid.
Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said that AER collects money “very efficiently. What the shame is, is they’re not doing more with it.”
National administrators say they’ve tried to loosen the purse strings. The most recent yearly figures do show a tilt by AER toward increased giving.
Still, Borochoff’s organization, which grades charities, gives the Army charity an “F” because of the hoarding.
The AP findings include:
- Superior officers come calling when AER loans aren’t repaid on time. Soldiers can be fined or demoted for missing loan payments. They must clear their loans before transferring or leaving the service.
- Promotions can be delayed or canceled if loans are not repaid.
- Despite strict rules against coercion, the Army uses pushy tactics to extract supposedly voluntary contributions, with superiors using language like: “How much can we count on from you?”
- The Army sometimes offers rewards for contributions, though incentives are banned by program rules. It sometimes excuses contributors from physical training – another clear violation.
- AER screens every request for aid, peering into the personal finances of its troops, essentially making the Army a soldier’s boss and loan officer.
“If I ask a private for something … chances are everyone’s going to do it. Why? Because I’m a lieutenant,” says Iraq war veteran Tom Tarantino, otherwise an AER backer. “It can almost be construed as mandatory.”
Neither the Army nor Sgt. Major of the Army Kenneth Preston, an AER board member, responded to repeated requests for comment on the military’s relationship with AER.
AER pays just 21 staffers, all working at its headquarters at Army Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Va. AER’s other 300 or so employees at 90 Army sites worldwide are civilians paid by the Army. Also, the Army gives AER office space for free.
AER’s treasurer, Ret. Col. Andrew Cohen, acknowledged in an interview that “the Army runs the program in the field.” Army officers dominate its corporate board too.
Charities linked to other services operate along more traditional nonprofit lines. The Air Force Aid Society sprinkles its board with members from outside the military to foster broad views. The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society pays 225 employees and, instead of relying on Navy personnel for other chores, deploys a corps of about 3,400 volunteers, including some from outside the military.
Army regulations say AER “is, in effect, the U.S. Army’s own emergency financial assistance organization.” Under Army regulations, officers must recommend whether their soldiers deserve aid. Company commanders and first sergeants can approve up to $1,000 in loans on their own say-so. Officers also are charged with making sure their troops repay AER loans.
“If you have an outstanding bill, you’re warned about paying that off just to finish your tour of duty … because it will be brought to your leadership and it will be dealt with,” says Jon Nakaishi, of Tracy, Calif., an Army National Guard veteran of the Iraq war who took out a $900 AER loan to help feed his wife and children between paychecks.
In his case, he was sent home with an injury and never fully repaid his loan.
The Army also exercises its leverage in raising contributions from soldiers. It reaches out only to troops and veterans in annual campaigns organized by Army personnel.
For those on active duty, AER organizes appeals along the chain of command. Low-ranking personnel are typically solicited by a superior who knows them personally.
Spiegel, the AER administrator, said he’s unaware of specific violations but added: “I spent 29 years in the Army, I know how … first sergeants operate. Some of them do strong-arm.”
Army regulations ban base passes, training holidays, relief from guard duty, award plaques and “all other incentives or rewards” for contributions to AER. But the AP uncovered evidence of many violations.
Before leaving active duty in 2006, Philip Aubart, who then went to Reserve Officer Training Corps at Dartmouth College, admits he gave to AER partly to be excused from push-ups, sit-ups and running the next day. For those who didn’t contribute the minimum monthly allotment, the calisthenics became, in effect, a punishment.
“That enticed lots and lots of guys to give,” he noted. He says he gave in two annual campaigns and was allowed to skip physical training the following days.
Others spoke of prizes like pizza parties and honorary flags given to top cooperating units.
Make no mistake: AER, a normally uncontroversial fixture of Army life, has helped millions of soldiers and families. Last year alone, AER handed out about $5.5 million in emergency grants, $65 million in loans, and $12 million in scholarships. Despite the extra demands for soldiers busy fighting two wars, AER’s management says it hasn’t felt a need to boost giving in recent years.
But the AP encountered considerable criticism about AER’s hoarding of its treasure chest.
Jack Tilley, a retired sergeant major of the Army on AER’s board from 2000 to 2004, said he was surprised by AP’s findings, especially during wartime.
“I think they could give more. In fact, that’s why that’s there,” said Tilley, who co-founded another charity that helps families of Mideast war veterans, the American Freedom Foundation.
What does AER do with its retained wealth? Mostly, it accumulates stocks and bonds.
AER ended 2007 with a $296 million portfolio; last year’s tanking market cut that to $214 million, by the estimate of its treasurer.
Sylvia Kidd, an AER board member in the 1990s, says she feels that the charity does much good work but guards its relief funds too jealously. “You hear things, and you think, “`They got all this money, and they should certainly be able to take care of this,’” she said. She now works for a smaller independent charity, the Association of the United States Army, providing emergency aid to some military families that AER won’t help.
Though AER keeps a $25 million line of bank credit to respond to a world economic crisis, its board has decided to lop off a third of its scholarship money this year. “We’re not happy about it,” Spiegel says.
Mark Benjamin & Michael de Yoanne, Salon
Check out the entire excellent series “Coming Home” here.
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Preventable suicides. Avoidable drug overdoses. Murders that never should have happened. Four years after Salon exposed medical neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ultimately grew into a national scandal, serious problems with the Army’s healthcare system persist and the situation, at least at some Army posts, continues to deteriorate.
This story is no longer just about lack of medical care. It’s far worse than sighting mold and mouse droppings in the barracks. Late last month the Army released data showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Another 15 deaths are still under investigation as potential suicides. “Why do the numbers keep going up?” Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a Jan. 29 Pentagon news conference. “We can’t tell you.” On Feb. 5, the Army announced it suspects 24 soldiers killed themselves last month, more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
But suicide is only one manifestation of the unaddressed madness and despair coming home with U.S. troops. Salon’s close inspection of a rash of murders and suicides involving soldiers at just one base reveals that many of the deaths seem avoidable. Salon put together a sample of 25 suicides, prescription overdoses and murders among soldiers at Colorado’s Fort Carson since 2004. Intensive study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of preventable deaths, meaning a suicide or murder might have been avoided if the Army had better handled the predictable, well-known symptoms of a malady rampant among combat veterans: combat-related stress and brain injuries. The results of Salon’s investigation will be published in a weeklong series of articles that begins today with “The Death Dealers Took My Life!”
Salon chose Fort Carson as a laboratory almost by chance. The story started to emerge on its own last summer during reporting at Fort Carson that exposed an alleged friendly fire incident involving soldiers posted there. It was clear during several visits to interview soldiers who’d witnessed the deaths of their colleagues that there was psychological turmoil on the base. Paranoid soldiers were running around with guns. There was prescription and illicit drug abuse, extremely heavy drinking, suicide and murder.
The soldiers seemed to be suffering classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: explosions of anger, suicidal and homicidal ideation, flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia. The Army was responding, for the most part, with disciplinary action rather than treatment, evincing little concern for possible underlying problems. The soldiers self-medicated further. Predictable outcomes followed.
The Army handled the families of the disturbed and neglected soldiers callously. Last November, as detailed today in the first of Salon’s multi-part series on preventable deaths at Fort Carson, officers provided paint for a mother to paint over her son’s suicide note, which he had scrawled on a barracks wall. Two years after his return from Iraq, Army doctors still hadn’t properly diagnosed him with PTSD. Two other troubled soldiers died after the Army handed them a brutally heavy and in one case toxic combination of drugs for their symptoms. In a moving prison interview, another soldier explained to Salon how better treatment might have prevented him, a month after returning from his second tour in Iraq, from being involved in the November 2007 murder of a fellow soldier.
The American troops in Iraq daily face the risk of death or injury — to themselves or their fellow soldiers — by homemade bombs and suicide attackers. So it is not surprising that post-traumatic stress disorder is a common problem among returning soldiers. But how many, exactly, are affected?
This question is key to determining how large an investment the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to make in diagnosing and treating the problem. The United States Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team, which conducted a survey of more than 1,000 soldiers and marines in September 2006, found that 17 percent suffered from P.T.S.D. Similarly, a Rand study put the number at 14 percent.
But these estimates do not take into account the many soldiers who will eventually suffer from P.T.S.D., because there is a lag between the time someone experiences trauma and the time he or she reports symptoms of post-traumatic stress. This can range from days to many years, and it is typically much longer while people are still in the military.
To get a better estimate of the rate of P.T.S.D. among Iraq war veterans, two graduate students, Michael Atkinson and Adam Guetz, and I constructed a mathematical model in which soldiers incur a random amount of stress during each month of deployment (based on monthly American casualty data), develop P.T.S.D. if their cumulative stress exceeds a certain threshold, and also develop symptoms of the disorder after an additional amount of time. We found that about 35 percent of soldiers and marines who deploy to Iraq will ultimately suffer from P.T.S.D. — about 300,000 people, with 20,000 new sufferers for each year the war lasts.
Consider that only 22 percent of recent veterans who may be at risk for P.T.S.D. (based on their answers to screening questions) were referred for a mental health evaluation. Less than 40 percent of service members who get a diagnosis of P.T.S.D. receive mental health services, and only slightly more than half of recent veterans who receive treatment get adequate care. Those who seek follow-up treatment run into delays of up to 90 days, which suggests there is a serious shortage of mental health professionals available to help them.
Proper P.T.S.D. care can lead to complete remission in 30 percent to 50 percent of cases, studies show. Thorough screening of every soldier upon departure from the military, immediately followed by three to six months of treatment for those who need it, would reduce the stigma that is attached to current mental health referrals. The Rand study estimates that treatment would pay for itself within two years, largely by reducing the loss of productivity. This is the least we can do for our veterans.
SAN FRANCISCO – Roy Lee Brantley shivers in the cold December morning as he waits in line for food outside the Ark of Refuge mission, which sits amid warehouses and artists lofts a stone’s throw from the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco.
Brantley’s beard is long, white and unkempt. The African-American man’s skin wrinkled beyond his 62 years. He lives in squalor in a dingy residential hotel room with the bathroom down the hall. In some ways, his current situation marks an improvement. “I’ve slept in parks,” he says, “and on the sidewalk. Now at least I have a room.”
Like the hundreds of others in line for food, Brantley has worn the military uniform. Most, like Brantley, carry their service IDs and red, white and blue cards from the Department of Veterans Affairs in their wallets or around their necks. In 1967, he deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army. By the time he left the military five years later, Brantley had attained the rank of sergeant and been decorated for his valor and for the wounds he sustained in combat.
“I risked my life for this democracy and got a Bronze Star,” he says. “I shed blood for this country and got the Purple Heart after a mortar blast sent shrapnel into my face and leg. But when I came back home from Vietnam I was having problems. I tried to hurt my wife because she was Filipino. Every time I looked at her I thought I was in Vietnam again. So we broke up.”
In 1973, Brantley filed a disability claim with the federal government for mental wounds sustained in combat overseas. Over the years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied his claim five separate times. “You go over there and risk your life for America and your mind’s all messed up, America should take care of you, right,” he says, knowing that for him and the other veterans in line for free food that promise has not been kept.
On any given night 200,000 U.S. veterans sleep homeless on the streets of America. One out of every four people — and one out of every three men — sleeping in a car, in front of a shop door, or under a freeway overpass has worn a military uniform. Some like Brantley have been on the streets for years. Others are young and women returning home wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan, quickly slipping through the cracks.
For each of these homeless veterans, America’s promise to “Support the Troops” ended the moment he or she took off the uniform and tried to make the difficult transition to civilian life. There, they encountered a hostile and cumbersome bureaucracy set up by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In a best-case scenario, a wounded veteran must wait six months to hear back from the VA. Those who appeal a denial have to wait an average of four and a half years for their answer. In the six months leading up to March 31st of this year, nearly 1,500 veterans died waiting to learn if their disability claims would be approved by the government.
There are patriotic Americans trying to solve this problem. Last month, two veterans’ organizations, Vietnam Veterans of America and Veterans of Modern Warfare, filed suit in federal court demanding the government decide disability claims brought by wounded soldiers within three months. Predictably, however, the VA is trying to block the effort. On December 17, their lawyers convinced Reggie Walton, a judge appointed by President Bush, who ruled that imposing a quicker deadline for payment of benefits was a task for Congress and the president-not the courts.
President-elect Barack Obama has the power to end this national disgrace. He has the power to ensure to streamline the VA bureaucracy so it helps rather than fights those who have been wounded in the line of duty. He can ensure that this latest generation of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan does not receive the bum rap the Vietnam generation got. Let 2008 be the last year thousands of homeless veterans stand in line for free food during the holiday season. Let it be the last year hundreds of thousands sleep homeless on the street.
FORT CARSON, Colo. — For the past several years, as this Army installation in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains became a busy way station for soldiers cycling in and out of Iraq, the number of servicemen implicated in violent crimes has raised alarm.
Nine current or former members of Fort Carson’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team have killed someone or were charged with killings in the last three years after returning from Iraq. Five of the slayings took place last year alone. In addition, charges of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault have risen sharply.
Prodded by Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, the base commander began an investigation of the soldiers accused of homicide. An Army task force is reviewing their recruitment, medical and service records, as well as their personal histories, to determine if the military could have done something to prevent the violence. The inquiry was recently expanded to include other serious violent crimes.
Now the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, says he is considering conducting an Army-wide review of all soldiers “involved in violent crimes since returning” from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a letter sent to Mr. Salazar in December. Mr. Geren wrote that the Fort Carson task force had yet to find a specific factor underlying the killings, but that the inquiry was continuing.
Focusing attention on soldiers charged with killings is a shift for the military, which since the start of the war in Iraq has largely deflected any suggestion that combat could be a factor in violent behavior among some returning service members.
Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, the Fort Carson commander, said, “If they had a good manner of performance before they deployed, then they get back and they get into trouble, instead of saying we will discipline you for trouble, the leadership has to say, Why did that occur, what happened, what is causing this difference in behavior?”
General Graham, whose oldest son, Jeff, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq a year after another son, Kevin, committed suicide, has made mental health a focus since taking command of Fort Carson in 2007. “I feel like I have to speak out for the Kevins of the world,” he said.
The inquiry, the general added, is “looking for a trend, something that happened through their life cycle that might have contributed to this, something we could have seen coming.”
Last January, The New York Times published articles examining the cases of veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan charged with homicide after their return. At the time, it counted at least 121 such cases. In many of them, combat trauma and the stress of deployment appeared to have set the stage for the crimes.
At Fort Carson, at least four of the accused killers from the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division were grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder and several had been injured in battle.
One was John Needham, a 25-year-old private from a military family in California, whose downward spiral began when he sustained shrapnel wounds in Iraq and tried to commit suicide. This September, after being treated for stress disorder and receiving a medical discharge from the Army, Mr. Needham was charged with beating his girlfriend to death.
“Where is this aggression coming from?” asked Vivian H. Gembara, a former captain and Army prosecutor at Fort Carson until 2004, who wrote a book about the war crimes she prosecuted in Iraq. “Was it something in Iraq? Were they in a lot of heavy combat? If so, the command needs to pay more attention to that. You can’t just point all of them out as bad apples.”
The Fourth Combat Brigade, previously called the Second Combat Brigade, fought in Iraq’s fiercest cities at some of the toughest moments. Falluja and Ramadi, after insurgents dug into the rubble. Baghdad and its Sadr City district, as body counts soared. By 2007, after two tours, the brigade, which numbers 3,500, had lost 113 soldiers, with hundreds more wounded. It is now preparing for a tour in Afghanistan this spring.
Most Fort Carson soldiers have been to Iraq at least once; others have deployed two, three or four times.
Kaye Baron, a therapist in Colorado Springs who treats Fort Carson soldiers and families, said, “It got to the point I stopped asking if they have deployed, and started asking how many times they have deployed.”
Ms. Baron added, “There are some guys who say, ‘Why do I have to get treatment for P.T.S.D.? I just have to go back.’ ”
While most soldiers returning from war adjust with minor difficulties, military leaders acknowledges that multiple deployments strain soldiers and families, and can increase the likelihood of problems like excessive drinking, marital strife and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Domestic violence among Fort Carson soldiers has become more prevalent since the Iraq war began in 2003. In 2006, Fort Carson soldiers were charged in 57 cases of domestic violence, according to figures released by the base. As of mid-December, the number had grown to 145.
Rape and sexual assault cases against soldiers have also increased, from 10 in 2006 to 38 as of mid-December, the highest tally since the war began. Both domestic violence and rape are crimes that are traditionally underreported.
Fort Carson officials say the increased numbers do not necessarily indicate more violence. Karen Connelly, a Fort Carson spokeswoman, said the base, whose population fluctuates from 11,000 to 14,500 soldiers, is doing a better job of holding soldiers accountable for crimes, encouraging victims to come forward and keeping statistics.
Even so, Col. B. Shannon Davis, the base’s deputy commander, said the task force was examining these trends. “We are looking at crime as a whole,” he said.
The killings allegedly involving the nine current or former Fourth Brigade soldiers have caused the most consternation. The first occurred in 2005, when Stephen Sherwood, a musician who joined the Army for health benefits, returned from Iraq and fatally shot his wife and then himself.
Last year, three battlefield friends were charged with murder after two soldiers were found shot dead within four months of each other. Two of the accused suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and all three had been in disciplinary or criminal trouble in the military. One had a juvenile record and been injured in Iraq.
The latest killing was in October, when the police say Robert H. Marko, an infantryman, raped and killed Judilianna Lawrence, a developmentally disabled teenager he had met online. Specialist Marko believed that on his 21st birthday he would become the “Black Raptor” — half-man, half-dinosaur, a confidential Army document shows. The Army evaluated him three times for mental health problems but cleared him for combat each time.
Senator Salazar, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to be secretary of the interior, called for the Fort Carson inquiry, saying the killings raised questions about what role, if any, combat stress played.
“It’s a hard issue, but it’s a realistic issue,” he said.
Since arriving at Fort Carson, General Graham has spoken openly about mental health, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, calling it an act of courage, not frailty, to ask for help.
His 21-year-old son, a top R.O.T.C. cadet, hanged himself in 2003 after battling depression. He had stopped taking his antidepressants because he did not want to disclose his illness, fearing such an admission would harm his chances for a career as an Army doctor, General Graham said.
“He was embarrassed,” the general said.
He added: “I feel it every day. We didn’t give him all the care we should have. He got some care, but not enough. I’ll never be convinced I did enough for my son.”
At Fort Carson, in cases of dishonorable discharge, General Graham asks whether the soldier might be struggling with combat stress disorder.
He has sometimes opted instead to grant medical discharges, which entitle veterans to benefits. All Fort Carson soldiers who seek medical attention are now asked about their mental health and, if necessary, referred for treatment.
Still, some sergeants view stress disorder skeptically and actively discourage treatment, some therapists and soldiers say.
Billie Gray, 71, who until recently worked at a base clinic helping soldiers with emotional problems, said “that was the biggest problem at Fort Carson today: harassment” and “the very fact they are harassed made their mental status worse.”
Ms. Gray said she believed she was fired in October for being an outspoken advocate for mental health treatment. Base officials declined to comment, citing privacy reasons.
Colonel Davis, the deputy commander, acknowledged that sergeants had been reprimanded for discouraging treatment. “We have had to take corrective action,” he said, “but fewer and fewer times.”
John Wylie Needham, one of the accused killers whose case is now being examined by the task force, was “cracking up” in Iraq, he told his father in an e-mail message. Yet, he felt he had to fight to get help, his father said in an interview.
In October 2006, during his first week in Iraq, Private Needham, a California surfer, watched a good friend die from a sniper bullet. Months later, he was blasted in the back by shrapnel from a grenade. To cope with his growing anxiety, he stole Valium and drank liquor. Caught twice, he was punished with a reduction in rank, a fine and extra work, a confidential Army document shows. Eventually, he was prescribed medication, but he wrote to his father, Mike Needham, that it did not help.
Private Needham became angry at the way other soldiers reacted to the fighting, and he did not hide it. “They seemed to revel in how many people they had killed,” said a friend in his unit who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In September 2007, Private Needham tried to kill himself with a gun, the Army document states, but another soldier intervened. Mike Needham, a veteran, said that rather than treating his son, the Army disciplined him for discharging a weapon and confined him to barracks. The Army declined to comment.
“I’m stressed to the point of completely losing it,” Private Needham wrote to his father in October 2007. “The squad leader brushed me off and said suck it up.”
He added, “They keep me locked up in this room and if I need food or water I have to have 2 guards with me.”
The Army evacuated Private Needham to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to treat his back and his post-traumatic stress disorder. But a month later, he was back at Fort Carson.
“The first words out of the Mental Health Authority was, ‘we are severely understaffed,’ ” Mr. Needham said in an e-mail message to an officer at Walter Reed. “If you’re suicidal we can see you twice a week, otherwise once a week.”
Fort Carson assured Mike Needham that his son was receiving proper care. But during his son’s visit home during the Thanksgiving break, Mr. Needham found him smearing camouflage-colored makeup on his face and frantically sharpening a stick with a kitchen knife.
“He was a total mess,” Mr. Needham said.
He was treated at a California naval hospital until last July when he received a medical discharge from the Army. While Private Needham was in the early stages of getting help from a Veterans Administration clinic, he spent his days depressed and often drinking at his father’s condominium.
Then last summer, Private Needham met Jacqwelyn Villagomez, a bubbly 19-year-old aspiring model who saw him as a kindred spirit, said Jennifer Johnson, who had helped raise her. Her mother had died of AIDS when she was 6 and her father had left the family. Ms. Villagomez, “who saw the good in everyone,” had recently kicked a heroin habit, Ms. Johnson said.
“She thought she could save him,” Ms. Johnson said. But a month later, the police say, Private Needham beat Ms. Villagomez to death in his father’s condominium.
Mr. Needham said the Army handled his son’s case poorly, but Ms. Johnson finds it hard to muster sympathy for him.
“I’m sure what happened to him was awful,” she said. “I’m sure he saw some horrible things that altered him. But this is a 200-pound guy who beat up this 95-pound little girl. It’s disgusting.”
War veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan came to Capitol Hill this month to testify before Congress and give an eyewitness account about the horrors of war. Like the Winter Soldier hearings in March, when more than 200 service members gathered for four days in Silver Spring, Maryland to give their eyewitness accounts of the injustices occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Winter Soldier on the Hill” was designed to drive home the human cost of the war and occupation—this time, to the very people in charge of doing something about it.
With so much attention understandably focused on the economy and the incoming administration, the struggles being faced by G.I.’s coming home from combat overseas are receding even further from the public’s consciousness.
If you’re in your late teens or early 20s and your energies have been directed for a year or more toward dodging roadside bombs and ambushes, caring for horribly wounded comrades and, in general, killing before being killed, it can be difficult to readjust to a world of shopping malls, speed limits and polite conversation.
Bryan Adams is the face of a sophisticated new advertising campaign that is trying to get troubled veterans to come in from the cold and piercingly lonely environment of post-wartime stress.
Bryan, now 24, was an Army sniper in Iraq from February 2004 to February 2005. At an age when many youngsters go to college or line up that first significant job, he and his squad-mates were prowling Tikrit with high-powered weapons, looking for bad guys.
He was shot in the leg and hand during a firefight, and he saw and did things that he was less than anxious to talk about when he came home.
“I wanted to go to college,” he told me. “I had all these plans, but I couldn’t seem to make them happen. I couldn’t focus. I would get, like, depressive thoughts.”
He said that he would party a lot. “Party” was a euphemism for drinking.
The drinking made him more depressed, and then he would get angry that he was “partying but not having a good time.”
Bryan said he would “flip out,” and friends began to shun him. “I just didn’t care what I did or who I affected with my actions. I would break stuff. I’d break, like appliances. It was bad.”
Returning to civilian life from combat is almost always a hard road to run. Studies have shown that a third or more of G.I.’s returning from the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan — more than 300,000 men and women — have endured mental health difficulties.
Many have experienced the agony of deep depression, and alarming numbers have tried or succeeded in committing suicide.
A CBS News study found that veterans aged 20 to 24 were two to four times as likely to commit suicide as non-veterans the same age.
The advertising campaign, initiated by the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was designed to increase the number of veterans seeking treatment for their mental health difficulties. Many are embarrassed to speak about their problems or are unaware that help is available, or even that they need help.
As Bryan Adams told me, “I didn’t know anything about these symptoms. I didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was.”
To get the word out, IAVA hooked up with the advertising giant BBDO and the nonprofit Ad Council, which is famous for such public service slogans as, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” and “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
This campaign is titled, “Alone,” and focuses on the sense of isolation so many veterans feel when they come home. The television and print ads encourage the veterans to visit a Web site,CommunityOfVeterans.org, as a place where they can share their experiences with other vets.
IAVA tells veterans in its promotional material: “Just listen in or share your experiences in a judgment-free environment.”
The site is filled with features and news updates on many topics and information on a wide range of mental health resources.
The ads are powerful.
In one, a somber Bryan Adams is shown, in camouflage fatigues, standing alone in an airport, then riding an otherwise passenger-less subway train, and then walking through empty streets in Manhattan. He is eerily and absolutely alone. There is not another soul in sight, until a marine in civilian clothes walks up to him, extends his hand, and says: “Welcome home, man.”
The ad then flashes the message: “If you’re a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan, you’re not alone.”
Bryan, who lives in Palmyra, N.J., is a real-life example of what the timely intervention of mental health counseling and treatment can do. At his family’s urging, he enrolled in a treatment program at a V.A. hospital in Boston. It turned his life around, and he is now back in college.
This ad campaign, if disseminated widely enough (it is depending on donated media), will reduce the heartache of G.I.’s and their families, and will save lives.
The need for more attention to this issue is tremendous. Combat does terrible things to people. As Paul Reickhoff, IAVA’s executive director, put it:
“Nobody can cross this river without getting wet.”
If you are a veteran, or know someone who is, send them to Communityofveterans.org.
Update from Matthis Chiroux
A few updates on Adam Kokesh’s trial and the court dates for the Hempstead 15.
Adam’s case was adjourned until December 11, however the D.A. did try to raise his bail in obvious contempt toward Adam as an activist and a veteran.
This is yet another clear sign the Nassau County D.A. intends to continue her persecution of veteran activists and escalate injustice against us at every opportunity afforded.
However, a good number of supporters were present at the courthouse to send a clear message to the D.A. that we will not be silenced and her conduct and that of her officers will not be tolerated.
So six more days, total, for us to gather, have our voices heard and condemn the Nassau County Police Department’s offense toward this nations’ veterans and our Constitutional rights.
Dec. 10th and 11th, and Jan. 5th thru 8th are the days set for the 15 of us to be tried. Each day, we will assemble at 8 a.m. to demand that charges are dropped against us and the officers responsible for brutalizing us are held accountable.
Please continue calling District Attorney Kathleen Rice at 516-571-2994 or contacting her here:http://www.nassaucountyny.gov/agencies/DA/contact.html to demand that all charges be dropped against the Hempstead 15.
As well, we are working on a petition exclusively for Nassau County residents to put some constituent-based pressure on the D.A., who is an elected official. If you can be of assistance either in contacting residents of Nassau county via phone or e-mail or actually street canvassing for signatures in Nassau County, please contact Lillian at email@example.com.
Lastly, Nick has received his first medical bill for his hour-and-a-half hospital stay in Nassau County where he was handcuffed to a gurney, diagnosed with a broken face and given nothing more than Motrin for the pain. $5,000, folks! No kidding. Nick nowhere NEAR has that kind of money, and this is only the first of many bills to right the wrong done by the NCPD to his person. NICK NEEDS YOUR HELP!!!!
Please, if you haven’t already sent a donation to Nick through the IVAW website, do so. This troop deserves everyones’ full support at whatever level they can give. If you already have donated, consider doing so again. Nick’s sacrificed everything to do right by this nation and her Constitution, and now, we MUST do right by Nick.
We’ll be sending out more reminders about court dates as they approach and planned actions around them. As well, we are planning several benefits to raise money for Nick that I will keep all in the loop about as more develops. If you can, consider holding one yourself in your local community to raise money and awareness. This is the type of organizing that really makes a difference to people like Nick and the rest of us.
Please stay in the fight with us, and continue sending me your letters and opinions. I read all of them and respond to as many as I can. Your voices ARE this movement, and I want to hear them as much as our President should.
Peace and Solidarity,
VIDEO OF THE ARRAIGNMENT DEMONSTRATION:
GREAT OP-ED BY PULITZER PRIZE-WINNER BOB KEELER IN NEWSDAY ABOUT THE HEMPSTEAD 15:
VIDEO OF HOFSTRA ACTION AND POLICE BRUTALITY:
NAOMI WOLF INTERVIEWS MATTHIS CHIROUX ABOUT HOFSTRA ACTION:
Kristofer Goldsmith (Army Sergeant)-Dec. 10
Paul Blasenheim-Dec. 10
Geoff Millard (Army Sergeant)-Dec. 11
Megan Day-Dec. 11
Adam Kokesh (Marine Sergeant)-Dec. 11
James Gilligan (Marine Corporal)-Jan 5
Matthis Chiroux (Army Sergeant)-Jan. 5
Nathan Peld (Navy Petty Officer)-Jan. 6
Ryan Olander-Jan. 6
Mike Spinato (Marine Sergeant)-Jan.6
Jose Vasquez (Army Staff Sergeant)-Jan. 7
David Disimino-Jan 7
Nick Morgan (Army Sergeant)-Jan 7
Marlissa Grogan (Marine Captain)-Jan. 8
Leanne Gillouly-Jan. 8
HEMPSTEAD, NY — Ten members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and five of their civilian supporters will be arraigned here Monday, November 10th for “Disorderly Conduct” stemming from arrests at a non-violent demonstration at Hofstra University during the final presidential debate.
The peaceful demonstration, designed to force veterans’ issues into the campaign spotlight, was responded to with police brutality resulting in serious injuries to one Iraq veteran when he was trampled by a police horse that charged onto a sidewalk.
IVAW’s Nick Morgan suffered a shattered cheek bone, among other injuries, after he was pulled to the ground by police and stepped on by one of their horses. He is still undergoing a series of reconstructive surgeries to repair damage done by the Nassau County Police Department.
It remains unclear how the entirety of the Hempstead 15 will plead to charges Monday, but one member, Sgt. Matthis Chiroux, vowed never to submit to police brutality or the infringement of his constitutional rights to peacefully assemble.
“The near killing of a veteran on a sidewalk is fine, but peacefully assembling to have grievances redressed by our leaders is disorderly? I don’t think so, America,” said Chiroux. “I will fight this to the bitter end to ensure our names are cleared and members of the NCPD are held accountable for their crimes against veterans and the U.S. Constitution.”
Supporters of the Hempstead 15 will begin assembling at 8 a.m. Monday at the First District Court of Nassau County located at 99 Main St., Hempstead, NY. The arraignment hearing is scheduled to begin at nine.
For more information or to arrange coverage, contact Jose Vasquez at 917-587-3334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
VIDEO OF HOFSTRA ACTION AND POLICE BRUTALITY:
NAOMI WOLF INTERVIEWS MATTHIS CHIROUX ABOUT HOFSTRA ACTION: