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Nearby Firing Ranges Complicate Soldiers' Recovery From Stress

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Army Sgt. Jonathan Strickland sits in his room at noon with the blinds drawn, seeking the sleep that has eluded him since he was knocked out by the blast of a Baghdad car bomb.

Like many of the wounded soldiers living in the newly built "warrior transition" barracks here, the soft-spoken 25-year-old suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But even as Strickland and his comrades struggle with nightmares, anxiety and flashbacks from their wartime experiences, the sounds of gunfire have followed them here, just outside their windows.

Across the street from their assigned housing, about 200 yards away, are some of the Army infantry's main firing ranges, and day and night, several days each week, barrages from rifles and machine guns echo around Strickland's building. The noise makes the wounded cringe, startle in their formations, and stay awake and on edge, according to several soldiers interviewed at the barracks last month. The gunfire recently sent one soldier to the emergency room with an anxiety attack, they said.

"You hear a lot of shots, it puts you in a defensive mode," said Strickland, who spent a year with an infantry platoon in Baghdad and has since received a diagnosis of PTSD from the military. He now takes medicine for anxiety and insomnia. "My heart starts racing and I get all excited and irritable," he said, adding that the adrenaline surge "puts me back in that mind frame that I am actually there."

Soldiers interviewed said complaints to medical personnel at Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital and officers in their chain of command have brought no relief, prompting one soldier's father to contact The Washington Post. Fort Benning officials said that they were unaware of specific complaints but that decisions about housing and treatment for soldiers with PTSD depend on the severity of each case. They said day and night training must continue as new soldiers arrive and the Army grows.

"Fort Benning is a training unit, so there is gunfire around us all the time," said Elaine Kelley, a behavioral health supervisor at the base hospital. If a soldier had a severe problem, it would have been identified, she said.

Lt. Col. Sean Mulcahey, who recently took command of the Warrior Transition Battalion, where wounded soldiers are assigned, said: "No soldier has talked with me about the ranges." If it is an issue, "we will address it," he said, stressing that the battalion's mission is "getting those soldiers to heal."

Under Army rules, commanders of warrior transition units are supposed to enforce "quiet hours." Officials said the location of the barracks for wounded soldiers, along with a $1.2 million Soldier and Family Assistance Center, was chosen for its proximity to central facilities such as the hospital. About 350 soldiers are assigned to the battalion -- including 176 who live in the barracks near the ranges -- where they stay an average of eight months, Mulcahey said. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the soldiers have PTSD, he said.

The soldiers are part of a growing group of an estimated 150,000 combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have PTSD symptoms. The mental disorder has been diagnosed in nearly 40,000 of them.

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks and anxiety, and noises such as fireworks or a car backfiring can make sufferers feel as though they are back in combat. Health experts say that housing soldiers near a firing range subjects them to a continual trigger for PTSD.

"It would definitely traumatize them," said Harold McRae, a psychotherapist in Columbus, Ga., who counsels dozens of soldiers with PTSD who are at Fort Benning. "It would be like you having a major car wreck on the interstate" and then living in a home overlooking the freeway, he said. "Every time you hear a wreck or the brakes lock up, you are traumatized."

Fort Benning, which covers more than 180,000 acres, is one of the Army's main training bases, with 67 live-fire ranges. The base has thousands of housing and barracks units. "There is no excuse" for the housing situation, said Paul Ragan, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, who treats veterans with PTSD. "Charitably put, it's very untherapeutic."

Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek, director of the Army's Warrior Care and Transition Office, which oversees 12,000 wounded soldiers, said: "I can see how that would be a problem. It's something we haven't considered" but should. "We have alternatives for housing the soldiers who have issues" with the ranges, he said, adding that the barracks for wounded troops at Fort Benning are an interim facility.

The gunfire "makes me crazy," said a soldier who lives in the barracks and has PTSD and traumatic brain injury from a roadside explosion in Iraq. "It makes me jump and I get flashbacks." He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the Army.

Soldiers living at the barracks say their rooms are in good condition and have recently been outfitted with flat-screen TVs, laptop computers and free Internet service. They say that their rooms are inspected frequently for cleanliness and that even soap scum on a sink or sunflower seeds left on a counter are noted in records. But the soldiers said they have received no explanation for why they must live so close to the firing ranges, even though they said at least one soldier raised the question at a town hall meeting with battalion leaders several weeks ago.

"It . . . freaks me out," said Sgt. Jonathon Redding, 27, of Little Rock. He said the gunfire has required him to increase his sleep medication. "I was under the impression I would get help here," he said. Instead, he said, he "got considerably worse."

'It Just Kind of Drains You'

Rolling through Iraqi towns with his artillery unit during the 2003 invasion, Redding saw and smelled the charred corpses of Iraqis he helped kill. "You can never forget that," he said, sitting in his room at Fort Benning last month.

When he returned home in August 2003, the Army did not screen him for behavioral health problems, he said.

Redding began "self-medicating" -- which is common for PTSD sufferers -- drinking several fifths of Southern Comfort a week. His weight dropped 30 pounds, to 135, in two months, and he grew withdrawn, sleepless and depressed.

According to Pentagon data, up to 15 percent of returning U.S. troops now show signs of PTSD, and the total number who receive diagnoses of chronic PTSD rose by nearly 50 percent last year.

Redding went home and joined the Arkansas National Guard. With help from a civilian doctor who gave him medicine for insomnia and anxiety, he limited his drinking and took a part-time job carrying caskets at the funerals of fallen soldiers. "I did about 90 funerals, I loved it," he said.

But Redding was informed in September that he would be mobilized with a military police unit bound for Iraq. At Camp Shelby, Miss., where he went for training in January, gunfire and artillery practice caused him to "freeze up," he said. He asked his civilian doctor for a prescription, but the company medic told him it was for a "non-deployable" medication, so if he was planning to deploy, his family would have to fill it and mail it to him -- skirting the rules.

Redding took the prescription through proper channels and was sent to a behavioral health expert, who determined he had PTSD and depression. The expert advised that he not deploy and that he go to a community health organization at home in Arkansas. Instead, in February, Redding was sent to Fort Benning, where he awaits orders to leave. "I went from a bad situation to a worse situation," he said. "In formations, they would be shooting and I would just be cringing. . . . I'd want to see where it's coming from."

Redding complained to his doctor about his housing. "She said it didn't make any sense," he said. He said his psychologist at the base hospital called the location "stupid." His chain of command said they would "look into it," he said.

But he still waits for relief from the constant gunfire. "It just kind of drains you," he said.

'Near-Constant Fear'

The 29-year-old Army specialist palmed the wheel of his 2003 Cadillac on the way to his psychotherapy appointment in downtown Columbus, just outside Fort Benning. He reached into the leather armrest, filled with bottles of prescription medicine: tranquilizers, antidepressants, pills to calm anxiety. He popped a couple of tablets in his mouth and turned into the clinic parking lot.

Spec. Keith, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used in order to protect his privacy, has what he calls "daymares" -- flashbacks caused by chronic PTSD that has left him paranoid. "Anytime I see a U-Haul truck pull up, in my mind I think it might be a car bomb," he said.

Last July, Keith was nearly killed in Iraq when insurgents fired 107mm rockets, hitting his tent. Shrapnel shredded his uniform, narrowly missing him. He soon began suffering headaches, dizziness and nausea. Doctors told him his ailments would go away, but they "only got worse," he said.

In November, he arrived at Fort Benning, where the live ammunition reminds him of the attack. "I have a hard time sleeping at night when they do night firing," Keith said. "For a moment I think something bad is going to happen, then I try to sit back and realize that it is a firing range."

Keith lives in "near-constant fear of being shot or killed," said an Army evaluation written by a doctor at Fort Benning in April.

Two weeks ago, the Army released him, so he loaded his car, pills close at hand, and drove away.

Strickland, who says he is lucky if he can get four hours of sleep a night, said the sounds from the firing ranges return him to the sweltering August night in Baghdad when the bomb threw him to the ground. He came home from Iraq in March 2005 and PTSD was diagnosed. But when his unit was called up to serve in Iraq late last year, his superiors encouraged him to go.

The "commander told me if I got back on the deployable list, I'd get my promotion," said Strickland, whose wife is expecting their second child. "I was trying to look after my family and get more pay."

He was ultimately pulled from the deployment and sent to Fort Benning, where he awaits paperwork to allow him to return to Arkansas. In the meantime, he looks out the window of his third-floor room onto firing ranges where recruits blast at targets.

"We've been there, we've fought in it, we've lost friends there," Strickland said, his mind in a distant war zone. "I'm not going to get any better in this environment."

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