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Leniency Suggested for Officer Who Shot Herself

By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

An Army hearing officer recommended yesterday that 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, a patient undergoing psychiatric treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, should not face a court-martial or other administrative punishment for having endangered the life of another soldier and attempting suicide while in Iraq.

"One of the Army values is integrity, which is defined as doing what is right, legally and morally," Maj. Mervin H. Steals, the investigating officer assigned to conduct a preliminary hearing, wrote in his decision. "The moral thing to do is dismiss these charges, to allow 1LT Whiteside to end her military service and receive the benefits that she will desperately need for the remainder of her life."

Steals's recommendation will be passed to Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., commander of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, which has jurisdiction over the matter. He can decide to accept, modify or reject Steals's recommendation.

Whiteside, whose case was recently profiled in The Washington Post, said yesterday that she was happy with Steals's decision. "I'm feeling all right. . . . It's not over yet."

The 25-year-old reservist, who led a small unit of medics based at the prison where Saddam Hussein and other top Iraqi figures were kept, suffered a mental breakdown on Jan. 1, possibly triggered by the stresses of war. An Army investigation also later found that her executive officer created a hostile work environment.

During the episode, she waved a gun at a psychiatric nurse, fired two bullets into the ceiling and threatened to kill nurses down a hallway. When she saw armed soldiers coming her way in response to the commotion, she slammed the door and fired a shot into her stomach.

Once at Walter Reed, Whiteside was diagnosed with a severe mental disorder. The Army offered her the chance to resign under a status that would have given her no Army or veterans medical benefits. Whiteside's seven years in the Army had been exemplary, according to her evaluations.

An Army sanity board found her insane at the time of the shootings. Whiteside's commanders at Walter Reed, who first filed criminal charges against her, derided her psychological diagnosis and problems as "an excuse" for her actions. The Army prosecutor in the case, Maj. Stefan Wolfe, had warned Whiteside's lawyer of the risk of using a "psychobabble" defense.

Wolfe "failed to present any evidence contradicting the Defense claim" that Whiteside suffered from a psychotic break, Steals wrote. Having heard testimony from two senior psychiatrists, Steals said "it is clear [she] was not mentally responsible for the events of this day."

One senior psychiatrist testified that it was possible Whiteside was able to distinguish right from wrong when she attempted suicide. But Col. George Brandt, chief of behavioral health services in Walter Reed's Department of Psychiatry, said he did not believe Whiteside ever had a grip on reality during the events.

Steals sided with Brandt, whom he described as a "highly decorated combat veteran" who is aware of the effect that Whiteside's erratic actions might have had on unit discipline. Even if Whiteside were aware of the wrongfulness of her suicide attempt, he said, "the idea of referring charges on her for this act would be inhumane."

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