Does the Military Send Sick Soldiers to War?
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The government's own military doctors knew that Spc. Anthony Vanderpool was mentally unbalanced. He had been admitted to the Bronx and Manhattan Veterans hospitals for major depressive disorder, dizziness, spells, auditory hallucinations and suicidal ideation, according to his V.A. records.
And this was before he even went to Iraq.
"I have a lot of anger. I never should have gone, " said Vanderpool, a Army National Guardsmen with 16 years prior service in the Army, Army reserves, Navy, Navy reserves and Air Force. "They didn't care. They wanted me because I was infantry," he said.
Vanderpool spent 10 months in Iraq on meds, not sleeping, depressed, paranoid, suicidal until he finally "spun out of control," forcing his command to acknowledge that he was too sick to be in a war zone. Off he went to Ft. Polk, La., for five months of medical treatment, and in December 2005, he was honorably discharged due to a "personality disorder."
Since then, he has been living a marginal life in Bay Shore, N.Y., single, no children, unemployed, finding himself increasingly isolated and depressed, and vomiting almost daily. He has been hospitalized for attempted suicide, and a recent review of his medical records show that was prescribed a daily dose of Zoloft for depression, Seroquel and Buspirone for anxiety, Zolmitripitan for migraines and Omeprazole for acid reflux. He attends a Veterans Administration post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) outpatient program twice a week.
Vanderpool's story is not unique
"The DOD admits they are sending mentally unfit soldiers into combat in Iraq," said Steve Robinson of Veterans for America. "This is not supposed to happen; the military should not have deployed this veteran to the war; what were they thinking and what does it say about the overstretched military?"
In May, the Hartford Courant reported that service members with preexisting PTSD were being sent back to Iraq, and some of those afflicted had committed suicide.
The situation galvanized Sens. Boxer, Kennedy, Lieberman and Clinton to sponsor an amendment to the last Defense Appropriations Bill in June calling for more thorough mental health screening, evaluation and detailed guidelines on what precludes deployment to a combat zone.
But the final legislation, passed in mid-October, dropped an original provision that would have required screeners to take a mental health history and refer a service member to a specialist if the service member indicates a mental health issue prior to deployment.
Such a provision might have helped Spc. Vanderpool who said that when he was activated by the National Guard and then deployed to Iraq, he told his superiors that he had a history of psychological problems, but these issues were ignored or dismissed. Once in Iraq, they got worse.
"The military should treat combat stress and psychological injuries as medical conditions. Instead, the military treats our injured soldiers as if they lack moral fortitude and improperly sends them back into battle," said Robinson.
"They said I was malingering, that I was a baby, wah, wah, wah wah, " said Vanderpool of his treatment by 1st Sgt. Daniel J. Bien, of Delta Company 101 Cavalry, at Camp Liberty, Baghdad.
Interviews with Vanderpool and members of his guard unit paint a picture of a command that refused to admit anyone was physically or psychologically sick.
"He (Sgt. Bien) didn't believe anybody was hurt," said Vanderpool's former platoon mate, Spc. Danny Gomes.
Added Sgt. Dallas Eccleston, who saved Vanderpool's life during an ambush,"There were people developing problems over there and people not believing them." He went on to describe Sgt. Bien as "definitely a suck-it-up kind of guy."
Bien responded in an email that "soldiers with documented mental illness are not mobilized for war; rather, they are discharged from the Army."
He said he could not "disclose any personal, medical information related to any of my soldiers," then added that Vanderpool "was sent for two mental health evals while in Iraq and there is documentation that he was malingering (faking) to try to get a psych discharge." He did not elaborate on the documentation.
He said Vanderpool had early in his tour concocted a scheme to pretend he was crazy. "He told other soldiers that his brother was mobilized a year or so before and faked being crazy and now collects a paycheck from the state of New York for a mental disability. VDP (Vanderpool]) told others that his plan was to do the same."
Vanderpool has never had a brother in the service.
"Anthony is the only who has been in the service. I have no other sons in the service, and I don't think they want to go there," said Vanderpool's mother Johnnie Mae.
She said that her son had been disabled since 1994 and that he was on medication when he was mobilized to go to Iraq. "I didn't understand why they were taking him over there if he was in the V.A. with a medical problem. It seems they will take anyone over there as long as they carry a gun."
According to documents provided by Vanderpool, his story unfolds as follows.
He was deployed to Iraq after numerous hospitalizations at V.A. hospitals and was being medicated for depression. He arrived in Iraq at the end of October 2004 and was soon caught in a deadly firefight that nearly took his life. After the incident, his psychological condition worsened. Eccleston and Gomes remember Vanderpool walking around, never sleeping, acting strange. A sworn statement by his roommate, Sgt. Timothy Walsh, says Vanderpool complained of flashbacks and was telling bizarre stories about being trained by the CIA and killing people in Spain.
He was treated by a psychiatrist in Iraq who informed his command that "his weapon should be removed from him as he is a threat to himself and others." On Jan. 12, 2005, Sgt. Bien signed a memo putting Vanderpool on profile and taking away his weapons.
A month later Vanderpool returned to New York on leave, and while there was brought by a friend to the Northport Veterans Hospital emergency room. The friend told hospital staff that Vanderpool was acting strange and was nonverbal, and medical reports described him as confused and disoriented. After a meeting with a military liaison team, which reviewed Vanderpool's medical records, including those showing multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, Vanderpool was released from hospital, ordered to report back to duty and return to Iraq.
A few days later he showed up at the Nassau University Medical Center and was diagnosed with peptic ulcer diseases. After receiving treatment, he left the hospital with his Zoloft, Seroquel and Protonix, and was sent back to Iraq.
For five more months he was deployed with no weapon, even though his base was repeatedly hit by rocket fire, killing at least one and wounding several soldiers.
Vanderpool said he felt terrified without a weapon. Gomes said the command was prepared to send Vanderpool on a mission, defenseless.
"They were trying to send this guy on a mission to the fricking border with no weapon. Even the general turned around to 1st Sgt. [Bien] and told him he was crazy, not to let him off base without a weapon."
Bien said, "No soldier was ever sent out or asked to be sent outside the wire without a weapon."
Then he added, "We were also conducting training for Iraqis at another camp and I had to assign several personnel to run this camp. When I included VDP's (Vanderpool's) name on the list, he refused to go."
In July, Vanderpool said he "flipped out," tried to steal another soldier's rifle and attack a superior officer. He was flown out of Iraq, first to a psych unit in Germany and then to Ft. Polk, La., where he spent five months in medical hold under the care of psychiatrists.
Why would the military keep a soldier in Iraq who had attempted suicide and was clearly medically unfit?
"They kept him there out of spite, to use him an example to other soldiers, said Gomes who spent his whole tour with Vanderpool. "Bien wanted to use Vanderpool as an example to the rest of the platoon to obey him."
Bien said, "If every soldier that showed signs of stress was taken off the battle roster, there would be nobody left to fight."
Gomes, now back in Staten Island, out of the National Guard and working toward becoming a New York City policeman, describes his time in Iraq as "the worst thing that ever happened to me. I'd go to Rikers (the New York City detention complex) before I go back there."
Amid his medical files, Vanderpool showed me a yellow piece of paper, the fragments of his life. Scrawled on it were lists of friends from various towns in Nassau County, friends from his tour in Iraq, his mother and father and brothers and sisters, a pastor and therapists. He just wanted to write it down, he said.
To the V.A., Vanderpool's life is as follows.
The patient is a 40-year-old single, unemployed African-American male with a past history of depression who presented to the ER on July 20 upon voluntary admission due to feelings of extreme depression, lack of motivation, isolation and suicide ideation. The patient states that he has been depressed "on and off" since 1994 when he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. The patient has had multiple psychiatric admissions to Manhattan and Bronx V.A. for dizziness, spells, auditory hallucinations and suicidal threats. The patient states that he is very disturbed by his experiences while in the Army and on his trip to and from Iraq. He continues to be paranoid and is disturbed by the memories he had while he was in Iraq first in 2004.
In the last two weeks prior to admission, the patient felt he was incapable of coming out of the depression and that he may "do something rash."
Upon admission, the patient continued to state that the depression was "out of control" and that he continued to isolate himself and to shy away from any social interaction. He denied alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse. He stated that the only thing that has made him feel better in the past is interaction and speaking with others such as members of his family; however, recently he has had no motivation or desire to contact anybody.
The patient states hat he sleeps very poorly, especially while he is depressed, and also eats very poorly. He has also been suffering with acid reflux and GERD, and while he is depressed, he discontinues his medication, which results in his regurgitating, so his eating habits continue to deteriorate. The patient states that he continues to "have a lot on his mind," mainly referring to the idea that he may be forced to go back to Iraq.
On Sept. 21, Vanderpool received an order from the Department of the Army, which appears to be an activation order. Attempts to verify whether Vanderpool has been called up again were unsuccessful, as the military refuses to discuss personnel issues. Vanderpool said that the guard base in Long Island confirmed it was an activation order. A public affairs officer with the New York Army National Guard said he has heard of rare occasions when those who have been medically discharged have been recalled for further evaluation because they were deemed to be cured and fit enough to complete the remainder of their service.