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Mental health and the military mind-set

A young sergeant's case illustrates the difficulty of balancing sensitive treatment against Army needs.

June 15, 2008|Aamer Madhani | Chicago Tribune

BELLMORE, N.Y — . -- Kristofer Goldsmith was so distressed about the prospect of returning to Iraq that he decided he was willing to kill himself to avoid serving a second tour.

The Army had mandated an extension of his three-year contract, which had been set to expire, as his unit was set to deploy to Baghdad as part of the troop surge. The day before he was to ship out in May 2007, he washed down a dozen Percoset with more than a liter of vodka.

Soon after he was admitted to the Winn Army Community Hospital at Ft. Stewart, Ga., a top noncommissioned officer from his brigade's rear detachment visited the young sergeant, along with an Army psychologist, to discuss discharging him from the military.

"We all agreed that it was for the best that my Army career come to an end then," said Goldsmith, who added that he'd scrawled the words "stop-loss killed me" in marker on his body before his suicide attempt. "It was a few days later when they told me that they were going to come at me for faking a mental lapse."

The rear commander of his unit, Maj. Douglas Wesner of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, quickly initiated an administrative punishment known as an Article 15 against Goldsmith for malingering -- that is, feigning a mental lapse or derangement or purposely injuring oneself -- in order to avoid being deployed to Iraq.

Eventually, his commanders dropped the Article 15, but not before removing the 22-year-old from the service on a general discharge. Because he did not receive an honorable discharge, Goldsmith was stripped of his Montgomery GI Bill benefits, which he'd been counting on to help pay for his college education.

Goldsmith's treatment is hardly unheard of. In fact, 21 Iraq soldiers have been punitively discharged since 2003 after being convicted of malingering, said U.S. Army spokesman Paul Boyce.

Goldsmith's case illustrates the complex decisions facing the U.S. military, which says it is eager to address the mental health problems plaguing its troops but at the same time must maintain its warrior ethos and respect for the chain of command.

Goldsmith remains adamant that he did not fake a mental illness. A Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist later diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wesner declined to comment. A 3rd Infantry Division spokesman said that Goldsmith was provided legal counsel and received a medical evaluation before his discharge, but he declined to speak further about the case.

Sitting in his parents' home in this working-class suburb on Long Island, Goldsmith said his mental unraveling began when he returned from his first tour in Iraq in 2005.

The collapse accelerated after he learned he would be subject to "stop-loss": The Army was involuntarily extending his three-year contract so that it could return him to Baghdad.

Goldsmith, now an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, is part of a growing population of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have suffered from PTSD. .

Pentagon officials recently disclosed that at least 40,000 U.S. troops had been diagnosed with PTSD after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. But those figures accounted only for those who had sought help; a recent study by Rand Corp. put the number closer to 300,000.

Last month, the Defense Department announced that 115 U.S. troops had committed suicide in 2007, the highest annual toll since the military began tracking the figures. And the Pentagon acknowledges that 12% to 15% of war-zone soldiers are taking antidepressants or sleep medication.

Goldsmith served much of his yearlong deployment in the Shiite slums of Sadr City. On patrols, his unit took potshots from insurgents and was attacked by brick-throwing adolescents.

Sadr City was plagued by sectarian fighting, and U.S. troops regularly found the tortured corpses of Sunni men. Goldsmith's duties included photographing them.

When he got back to Ft. Stewart in late 2005, Goldsmith said, he suffered deep bouts of depression and drank so much that he would often black out.

At first he refused to seek help.

"Before we were heading back to Iraq, [a senior noncommissioned officer] said that if we tried to use mental stress as a way to get out of going, he would see to it that we'd become his personal IED kicker," Goldsmith said. "No one wanted to be stigmatized. . . . You also feared that there would be career consequences."

One night Goldsmith became so irritated by a man at a party that he choked him until he was unconscious. He realized that he had to tell his commanders he needed help.

Goldsmith is fighting for an upgrade to an honorable discharge so he can regain his eligibility for GI Bill benefits.

Some of the soldiers who worked most closely with him have written letters to the 3rd Infantry Division brass on his behalf.

His company commander and platoon leader had recommended him for a Bronze Star at the end of his tour.

"If I were to go to war tomorrow, I would want Kris Goldsmith to go with me," Capt. Edward McMichael, who was Goldsmith's company commander in Iraq, said in an interview. "I don't think Kris would fake it."

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