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Soldier Suicides at Record Level

Army 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside was judged by her superiors to be a model officer. But after suffering a psychiatric breakdown in Iraq, she has found herself facing criminal charges for attempted suicide and endangering the life of another soldier. Her story shows that the Army continues to grapple with soldiers who suffer mental trauma in a combat zone.

Over the past year, the Army has reinvigorated its efforts to understand mental health issues and has instituted new assessment surveys and new online videos and questionnaires to help soldiers recognize problems and become more resilient, Ritchie said. It has also hired more mental health providers. The plan calls for attaching more chaplains to deployed units and assigning "battle buddies" to improve peer support and monitoring.

Increasing suicides raise "real questions about whether you can have an Army this size with multiple deployments," said David Rudd, a former Army psychologist and chairman of the psychology department at Texas Tech University.

On Monday night, as President Bush delivered his State of the Union address and asked Congress to "improve the system of care for our wounded warriors and help them build lives of hope and promise and dignity," Whiteside was dozing off from the effects of her drug overdose. Her case highlights the Army's continuing struggles to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and to make it easier for soldiers and officers to seek psychological help.

Whiteside, the subject of a Post article in December, was a high-achieving University of Virginia graduate, and she earned top scores from her Army raters. But as a medic in charge of a small prison team in Iraq, she was repeatedly harassed by one of her commanders, which disturbed her greatly, according to an Army investigation.

On Jan. 1, 2007, weary from helping to quell riots in the prison after the execution of Saddam Hussein, Whiteside had a mental breakdown, according to an Army sanity board investigation. She pointed a gun at a superior, fired two shots into the ceiling and then turned the weapon on herself, piercing several organs. She has been at Walter Reed ever since.

Whiteside's two immediate commanders brought charges against her, but Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the only physician in her chain of command and then the commander of Walter Reed, recommended that the charges be dropped, citing her "demonstrably severe depression" and "7 years of credible and honorable service."

The case hinged in part on whether her mental illness prompted her actions, as Walter Reed psychiatrists testified last month, or whether it was "an excuse" for her actions, as her company commander wrote when he proffered the original charges in April. Those charges included assault on a superior commissioned officer, aggravated assault, kidnapping, reckless endangerment, wrongful discharge of a firearm, communication of a threat and two attempts of intentional self-injury without intent to avoid service.

An Army hearing officer cited "Army values" and the need to do "what is right, legally and morally" when he recommended last month that Whiteside not face court-martial or other administration punishment, but that she be discharged and receive the medical benefits "she will desperately need for the remainder of her life." Whiteside decided to speak publicly about her case only after a soldier she had befriended at the hospital's psychiatric ward hanged herself after she was discharged without benefits.

But the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, which has ultimate legal jurisdiction over the case, declined for weeks to tell Whiteside whether others in her chain of command have concurred or differed with the hearing officer, said Matthew MacLean, Whiteside's civilian attorney and a former military lawyer.

MacLean and Whiteside's father, Thomas Whiteside, said the uncertainty took its toll on the young officer's mental state. "I've never seen anything like this. It's just so far off the page," said Thomas Whiteside, his voice cracking with emotion. "I told her, 'If you check out of here, you're not going to be able to help other soldiers.' "

Whiteside recently had begun to take prerequisite classes for a nursing degree, and her mental stability seemed to be improving, her father said. Then late last week, she told him she was having trouble sleeping, with a possible court-martial weighing on her. On Monday night, she asked her father to take her back to her room at Walter Reed so she could study.

She swallowed her pills there. A soldier and his wife, who live next door, came to her room and, after a while, noticed that she was becoming groggy, Thomas Whiteside said. When they returned later and she would not open the door, they called hospital authorities.

Yesterday, after having spent two nights in the intensive care unit, he said, his daughter was transferred to the psychiatric ward.

Whiteside left two notes, one titled "Business," in which her top concern was the fate of her dog. "Appointment for the Vetenarian is in my blue book. Additional paperwork on Chewy is in the closet at the apartment in a folder." On her second note, she penned a postscript: "Sorry to do this to my family + friends. I love you."

Staff writer Anne Hull contributed to this report.


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