A Patient Prosecuted
Tuesday, December 4, 2007; 11:30 AM
Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne V. Hull discussed "A Soldier's Officer," the latest installment in their "Walter Reed and Beyond" series chronicling the care and treatment given to service members returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The transcript follows.
Boston, Mass.: Is this a story that will stick with you with continued reporting for the rest of your lives given the lingering problems likely to face these vets for the rest of their lives and the likely continued problems they will face dealing with government care?
Anne V. Hull: This story is an endless endeavor. Every day we receive more emails and phone calls from vets/soldiers/family members with their own stories. Many deal with similiar themes of mental health problems and the Army's slow grasp on the totality of what soldiers are bringing home with them.
We have chosen to focus mostly on Iraq and Afghanistan vets but the larger vet community and their travails could be covered forever. It's our duty to keep on this story and so don't expect the Post to let up on these issues.
Boston, Mass.: Great reporting. I'm sure you saw this, but the Army issued a press release Dec. 3 in response to your story. Apparently, the military takes issue with the fact that you aired "certain details of this officer's behavioral status." The next sentence of the release reads "We will not share highly personal details of the lieutenant's medical situation." What was your take on this?
The Army news release also took umbrage with your depiction of "battle-hardened combat veteran leaders at odds with Army medical professionals."
The news release struck me as full of accusations and short on proof that you had facts wrong, but I was hoping you could respond to their claims.
Anne V. Hull: We did not violate Lt. Whiteside's privacy issues around her mental health records. It's clear to any reader that she cooperated with this story from the beginning. The Whitesides had gone to members of Congress and the Pentagon seeking resolution. Lt. Whiteside is a private person and going public was not easy for her. She decided to do so only after her friend, a fellow pscyhe patient at Walter Reed earlier this year, hanged herself last week.
Anne V. Hull: Sorry for the late hello. Dana and I are both here. Let's go.
Washinton, D.C.: What has the response been from the Army itself? Do you have the same kind of access you had when you first started going there and talking to patients?
Anne V. Hull: Read the Army's response published today in the Wash Post letters to the editor. No comment on sources and methods.
washingtonpost.com: Letters to the Editor: Lt. Whiteside's Care, Dec. 4, 2007
Bethesda, Md.: Thank you for this article. I think our military brass needs a "sanity board evaluation" if it believes it can continue to use up and discard these soldiers in such an ignorant manner and expect to continue waging wars with an all-volunteer force. Why do you suppose those in charge remain so uninformed about wounds of the mind?
Anne V. Hull: Some "get it" and others seem to still be a product of the culture. Like all culture shifts, these are slow to change. And yet the high numbers of returning soldiers with post tramatic stress disorder and other mental problems have forced them to take notice. Many initiatives launched and in the works from the Army but still the disturbing trend continues of service memebers with mental issues not getting treated the same as the physically wounded.
Cambridge MA: Thank you for making the public more aware of what is happening to 1st Lt. Whiteside, and other soldiers who have been left emotionally scarred by the war. The behavior of the military shocks and angers me; you would think they would be trying to help them.
I want to do more than just be angry. How can I and other people help these soldiers in a way that would be meaningful to them? Are there organizations working on behalf of soldiers struggling with PTSD and the threat of loss of benefits?
Anne V. Hull: The National Alliance on Mental Illness today mailed a letter to the Secretary of the Army, offering assistance with mental health issues.
Arlington, Va.: How is the mental stress of soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan different than those who returned from other wars?
Anne V. Hull: What's different about this war is that they come back to hometowns and cities that are not really engaged in the war. Less than one percent of Americans are serving. Also, the battlefield in Iraq is everywhere, with no clear cut front lines. The randomness of violence and the mutilating nature of bombs and explosives make every day stressful. Just driving a car once home again sets off a lot of soldiers.
Rockville, Md.: Some of the statements I see from the Army Officers are really difficult to understand. Either they should get advice on what to say or just shut up. They are ruining any case the Government might have - and some are decisionmakers. Who hired these guys? I am shocked, and surprised to be so shocked.
Anne V. Hull: Obviously the Army has a right to make its case.
Providence, R.I.: Anne and Dana -- hope you can take an early question. I'm curious why you didn't seek any comment from Secy. Gates or Lt. Whiteside's two senators, both of whom sit on the Armed Forces committee. Did she try to get help from any of her congressional delegation? Especially with Schoonmaker's role, it seems like somebody should have been alerted before this shameful treatment went as far as it did. I hope your story does this gutsy soldier some good.
Anne V. Hull: LT. Whiteside did seek help from her members of Congress. We saw our job as telling her story. She agreed to tell her story as a last resort. We actually learned of her case from other sources and sought her out. Her decision to go public was not an easy one.
Washington, D.C.: How do you choose which person's story to tell?
Anne V. Hull: We are always soliciting story tips/ideas and sorting through those that come to us. This case was extremely compelling and illuminated many patterns. Documents and records always help, as we can't go on the word of an individual alone.
Washington, D.C.: Nice to see that the spirit of General George "the cure for batttle fatigue is a good slapping" Patton lives on.
Anne V. Hull: Just passing this along because so many readers have given this analogy.
Rockville, Md.:"Obviously the Army has a right to make its case. "
I agree. But I don't think they are.
Anne V. Hull: One person's view from Rockville:
Career military: As a career military member I cannot see how a uniformed member of the military, affected by the war, can be considered for court martial for disrupting the morale of a unit. Our first priority should be to help cure the patient/the member/the victim. Then, if appropriate, help them separate from the service. My concern, as a former recruiting official, is that many (potential applicants, their family, and the influencers) will see that the military isn't concerned with the individual; only the politics of war.
Anne V. Hull: The Army is trying to entice and retain recruits/soldiers with lucrative and ever-increasing financial bonuses. Many still want to serve for reasons unrelated to money.
Lyme, Conn.: Would you state that it is fair to assume that the Defense Department wants the public to think that war is all glory and wants the deaths, wounded, and mental illness caused by war to be hidden as much as possible? Sometimes I think one of the lessons the military learned from the Vietnam War is to not let the cameras onto the battlefield. Coffins cannot be photographed. The wounded do not come back heralded by parades but are sent back individually to their families or stateside hospitals. Is it fair to state this is a deliberate policy?
Anne V. Hull: It is a deliberate policy to block some access, including the coffins of deceased soldiers. On the other hand, the embedding of reporters during the invasion of Iraq gave great (though controlled)access to the battlefield. Many reporters are still embedded with units now. On wounded soldiers, they have been glad to trumpet the medical advances that have kept soldiers alive. But we found it impossible to openly examine what happens after their lives are saved.
Fairfax County, Va.: There seem to be various stats going around as to the actual suicide (or attempted) rates of veterans returning from Iraq especially. Some of them seemed astounding, on the order of 100 a week or the like. Do you have a handle on what the real numbers are?
Anne V. Hull: If they are definitive numbers, we don't have them yet.
Arlington, Va.: What has happened to Elizabeth Whiteside? It seems like the doctors at Walter Reed have sided with her in her legal case.
Anne V. Hull: Lt. Whiteside's psychiatric team at Walter Reed agreed that she suffers from a mental disofder and two who evaluated her for the Army prosecution in a sanity board hearing found that she was not aware of reality at the time of the incident. Still, the Army continued its case against her.
She is spending this week awaiting news from the convening authority whether her case will be dismissed, offered for court martial or some middle ground of lesser punishment. She is still an outpatient at Walter Reed.
Fairfax, Va.: It seems like changing the way the Pentagon handles mental illness of its returning soldeirs will be a slow bureaucratic mess. Do you think your reporting today will really help those returning from the current war? Or is your hope more for the future?
Anne V. Hull: The Pentagon is making efforts. Last week, the DOD announced the initial operations of a PTSD/behavioral health center in Rosslyn that will be up and fully running in a year. Lots of money, lots of research and studies into issues of PTSD and TBI but the problem is not enough qualified mental health providers have been hired and current ones are not being fully trained on latest techniques. The problem - for the country - is that four years of Iraq and Afghanistan vets received little attention and care, now they are dealing with realities of their conditions.
Seattle, Wash.: Not sure if you have an answer, or if there is an answer at all, but my question is:
Can the US military do a better job of screening applicants for the armed forces for suspectibility for these mental conditions? Or is it a better policy simply to recruit whomever and deal with these problems afterwards?
Anne V. Hull: Almost on a daily basis, we hear from soldiers who say they told their ruiters about mental health issues - depression, cutting, etc - but recruiters instructed them not to bring it up. The pressure to make the numbers is great.
The big Army is trying to come up with a more thorough tool for screening applicants.
Herndon, Va.: Did you ever think that even though the Lt. shared her side of the medical records the Army is still prevented by law to discuss the case? As a result, is it possible, you only have one side of the story? I know you guys have a lot of fun beating up on the Army but would you ever consider that you are biased and went into the story with the intent to discredit the Army?
Anne V. Hull: We are aware of this issue in the Whiteside case and othera. But we had exhaustive records, including the Army's criminal investigation into the case in Iraq and its internal deliberations over it. We also listened to the entire Article 32 hearing held last week and at no time did the government bring up an issue not captured in the story. This would have been the place to raise such issues. The prosecution did not.
Northeast Washington, D.C.: Has anyone ever threatened you during your reporting? Not with laswuits, but with actual physical harm?
Anne V. Hull: Not yet.
Anne V. Hull: We're signing off. Thanks for joining in. Your thoughts and questions are important and appreciated.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.