The Case of Lt. Whiteside

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

ARMY OFFICIALS are distressed that personal details about the health of 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside have been made public. We bet: They look ridiculous in their cruel pursuit of legal charges against a woman injured in service to her country. This is not an isolated case of insensitivity. The abuse of Lt. Whiteside raises questions about how far the military has really come in its treatment of mental health problems.

Lt. Whiteside faces a possible court-martial on charges that she attempted suicide in Iraq. As reported by The Post's Dana Priest and Anne Hull, the 25-year-old Army reservist had a stellar record of service but had a breakdown, possibly caused by her service in war-torn Baghdad. After a series of stressful incidents, she shot herself in the stomach. Despite the unequivocal judgment of psychiatrists that she suffers from significant mental illness, her commanders pressed criminal charges against her, and she's now waiting to hear whether the Army will court-martial her.

The Army contends that it couldn't look the other way, because serious allegations of kidnapping and aggravated assault are also involved. Yet, for all its sanctimonious talk, the Army was prepared to do just that -- as long as Lt. Whiteside was willing to quietly leave the service in a deal her lawyer says would have deprived her of benefits, including all-important health care. No final decision has been made on whether she will face a court-martial, which could lead to a possible life sentence. Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr. will soon receive the results of an investigation. We hope he'll bring common sense and decency to bear on this sad tale and allow Lt. Whiteside to continue her recovery. That the case got as far as it did is a troubling indication of a culture in the military that gives little credence to psychiatric ills. How else to explain the fact that the relatives of a service member who loses a leg are provided free lodging and a per diem to help in the recovery while relatives of a service member receiving outpatient psychiatric care have to fend for themselves? There is no question that the Army has launched a number of worthy initiatives to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental ailments. Still, the trend of disparate treatment continues; as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) observed, too many soldiers believe they are better off losing a limb than suffering a mental disorder.

It was reassuring to hear retired Lt. Gen. James B. Peake, President Bush's nominee to be secretary of veterans affairs, tell the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs at his confirmation hearing yesterday that treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder is "a very high priority." As the country grapples with how to treat its "invisible wounded," it is important that there be a command structure that actually listens to doctors and that doesn't send the message that those in need of help will be punished.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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