Trained to Harm: How the Military Abuses Its Own

Accidents," Alexander Cockburn once wrote, "are normalcy raised to the level of drama." The same may be said for scandal, the shocking event that turns out not to have been so shocking after all once the tape is rewound, the warning signs exquisitely detailed and the "big picture" filled in. The scandal du jour is the rampage of Cho Seung-Hui, a "quiet" boy, "no trouble at all" until he killed 32 people at Virginia Tech and others began to recall that, why yes, there were those creepy actions and creepier plays, those diagnoses of mental illness, the telltale trail of every scared, sick loner who one day snaps, adding his victims to the 30,000 Americans killed with guns in far more ordinary circumstances each year.

"Thanks to you I die like Jesus Christ to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people," Cho said in his video. It is as if he had been reading from the scripts of school-shooters past, every one of whom had been taunted as a wuss, or rejected by a girl, or was lonely and withdrawn, or had written harrowing stories of mayhem and slaying. Like them, Cho was finally notable for his orgy of slaughter and the demented aspect of his immortality fantasy; otherwise, he merely supplied the latest dramatic uptick in the long-running saga of the marriage of weakness and cruelty.

Today, Cho; yesterday, Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The injured soldiers at the center of that earlier scandal certainly qualify as weak and defenseless people, except that the object of fascination while they dominated the 24/7 churn of cable news was not their career as killers or the preparations that readied them to kill. They were the victims in the scandal. About the perpetrator, Walter Reed, the question "How could this have happened?" was not answered with any of the searching examination the press brings to the biography of mass murderers. Naturally, we aren't meant to think of soldiers as trained killers or of any military installation as part of an institution of mass murder. It might help if we did. Certainly it would help aspiring recruits better understand what they are getting into, and help wounded veterans understand why they would be degraded as soon as they'd outlived their usefulness to the trade.

The truth is, a system dedicated to transforming psychologically healthy people into people capable of performing what in any other setting is considered a pathological act can't help behaving badly -- not all the time or in all of its realms, not monolithically so that everyone associated with it is scathed. But inevitably the ends deform the means, and inevitably someone pays. No one is talking about it, but what happened at Walter Reed to soldiers injured in war is not shocking at all if one ponders what happens at Army posts to soldiers injured in basic training.

"Like being incarcerated"

Basic training is one of those regimens of cruelty that people have come to accept as normal. The Army has officially eliminated some of its most abusive practices, along with its theory of "breaking them down to build them up," the classic humiliation of recruits by a drill sergeant, designed to make them into soldiers capable of acting as a unit, following orders and killing. This reshaping remains essential; it is simply meant to be accomplished with more respect now. In all events, weakness is to be despised, which means that the 15 to 37 percent of men and the 38 to 67 percent of women who sustain at least one injury due to the rigors of basic training at Fort Sill, Fort Knox, Fort Jackson, Fort Leonard Wood or Fort Benning are in trouble.

A year ago I visited Fort Sill, Okla., where the son of a friend had suffered stress fractures during basic training and was then in the post's physical training and rehabilitation program. PTRP is where the Army, desperate for bodies in a time of war, puts broken enlistees whom it is committed neither to curing nor to releasing, nor even to respecting as soldiers and human beings. Basic training takes nine weeks; PTRP can warehouse soldiers for months, in anticipation of the time they manage to recuperate, pass the grueling PT (physical training) test and go on to battle-readiness; or fail the test, try again, stumble through the bureaucratic labyrinth until the point at which they are chaptered out or medically discharged. As trainees, all have yet to be granted "permanent party" status in the Army. In the military hierarchy, this makes them lower life forms, which is how they were being treated at Fort Sill.

It was Family Weekend when I visited, and the PTRP command was on its toes because for weeks my friend, Pat deVarennes, had been writing a blog exposing the routine abuses of injured soldiers there. As a result of her persistence, the Army had initiated an investigation into the actions of a drill sergeant who had kicked a soldier in his bad knee, sending him to the floor screaming, and who had punished and terrorized the soldiers in numerous other ways. That weekend these men, on crutches and painkillers, wearing casts or moving gingerly, were not being called "fakers," "lady men," "shitsacks," "malingerers"-- the names that, at other times, were regularly hurled at them. The command met with parents and wives and told them their loved ones would be getting individualized medical attention, something many had not had for months, and reassured them that the soldiers' well-being was their chief concern.

A week later, on March 19, 2006, one of those soldiers, Pfc. Matthew Scarano, 21, was found dead in his bunk. He had been in the program for more than a year with a shoulder injury and excruciating pain. It was unlikely he would ever be fit for battle, but he could not get out. Shortly before he died, he wrote to deVarennes: "I liken being here to being incarcerated. And it often helped during the bleaker points in PTRP history to think of it as such: I'm far from being any kind of expert on the subject, but perhaps it was a psychological self-defense mechanism to try to perceive what was going on as being punitive in nature."

Over the months of Scarano's confinement to the program, his shoulder got worse, and so did he. "The Army has me on Ambien, seroquel, tylox and oxycontins. I also get trazadone to take the edge off," he wrote his family. At the time of death he was on Fentanyl, described in medical literature as an analgesic patch 80 times more potent than morphine. The Army said an overdose had killed him, and then, although his injured comrades said that dispensing drugs was as strictly controlled as every other aspect of life in PTRP, it essentially blamed the dead man as a doper and the others as slackers for not reporting his drug problem. In fact, some had reported it, and nothing happened. His condition, moreover, was hardly a secret to the command, since often he was so zoned out he could barely stand in formation.

After Scarano's death, the Army initiated an investigation and issued policy changes. It had done something similar two years earlier when another PTRP inmate, Pvt. Jason Poirier, 22, died in the same Fort Sill barracks from acute methadone intoxication. It's doubtful that the adjustments since Scarano's death will do any more than those after Poirier's to alter fundamentally the treatment of injured soldiers.

Fear of reprisal

Immediately after Scarano's death, I published a story in CounterPunch detailing the abuses at Fort Sill and sent it to every mainstream journalist I knew, urging them to follow up. Readers wrote in droves telling me of their own PTRP experiences at other posts. Some sent the story to their representatives, and Scarano's father was calling for a congressional inquiry. Nothing happened. Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times wrote an excellent piece on the case, and in it Army officials chalked up the 21-year-old's unfortunate end to lessons learned.

A year later letters continue dribbling into my e-mail box. "Ft. Sill still doing it," read the subject line of a February letter from a woman who said her nephew was sick with pneumonia and asthma and had been kicked in the chest by a drill sergeant. When I asked for more information, she didn't reply. "You must never use our names," wrote a mother whose son had been in Fort Benning's PTRP last year and was then forced to do basic training twice. Actually, she never gave me the names, not of herself or her son or the soldier he said had committed suicide while he was there. People don't want to give names to journalists for the same reason they don't complain to the higher-ups, which makes challenging higher-ups on their behalf difficult.

DeVarennes spoke up because she was scared that if she didn't, someone might die at Fort Sill. Her son had told her about a soldier who came into PTRP with a broken finger. It didn't heal properly for some reason and ended up deformed, his hand at less than 100 percent and his ability to do pushups impaired. He was in PTRP for about nine months trying, and failing, to pass the PT test. One day, he cut himself all over with a razor, smeared himself with excrement, marched naked out of the barracks and was put in a psych ward on suicide watch. Afterwards, no doubt pumped with antidepressants, he was made to try the test one more time, and to fail one more time, before officials moved to discharge him.

He didn't die. Neither did deVarennes's son, Pvt. Richard Thurman. Richard got stress fractures and couldn't run, it was determined, because he had flat feet. Once upon a time flat feet disqualified one from military service. After months in the netherworld of PTRP, Richard still couldn't run but was cleared for active duty. He is now in Iraq.

Wounded, unwanted

I thought of Scarano and the others when I read the stories about Walter Reed. The Washington Post's riveting account of Feb. 18 included the story of Cpl. Jeremy Harper, 19, who had seen three of his buddies die in Iraq and was at Walter Reed for severe PTSD. He refused his medals and kept to his room in the dark, heavily medicated, which everyone noticed. On New Year's Eve 2004 he was seen wandering in the lobby of one of the Walter Reed buildings, looking for a ride home to West Virginia. The next morning he was found dead in his bed of alcohol poisoning.

After the Post's story came out, a familiar sequence of firings, testimony and reform commenced. In April the House passed the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act to streamline administrative processes, create a toll-free hotline for complaints, increase the number of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors, etc. In March it passed the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (suicide is epidemic, and psychological services are grossly strained). The Senate initiated similar measures. About nine congressional investigations are under way; the president has appointed a special committee, and his 2008 budget increases VA health spending by 9 percent. Being a bureaucracy, the military should benefit some from such bureaucratic adjustment.

Different protocols may have saved Scarano and Harper through more rigorous control of their medications. On some deep level, though, the weakling who would never make a warrior and the weakling who recoiled from the warrior's reality, rejecting its wretched honors and demands, were done in long before the toxins killed them. Fighters who would not, or could not, fight flouted the institution's sacred principle by their very being. It had to punish them.

"At the military's upper levels, abuse is widely believed to be not only desirable but absolutely necessary to have a disciplined, effective military and keep everyone in line," a former Army enlisted man, Tim Moriarty, wrote to me. "Instilling in someone the 'fear of God' (or rather, the fear of the Army) is the first thing one encounters when joining the Army. It's a lesson drilled down deep into the psyche, and it's meant to last for life, or at least the duration of one's enlistment."

And the essence of that fear? It is the knowledge, another former soldier, called Morley, explained, "that the people in front of you (i.e., the enemy) and the people in back of you pointing a revolver at you to keep you from running away (i.e., your own command) are all trying to kill you, and they succeed all too frequently with your friends and buddies. But you can't desert to the enemy, because all combat troops shoot prisoners, no matter what is said in the books, because prisoners are like the wounded, someone has to look after them." And no warrior institution wants to.

After the Walter Reed scandal broke, the media fastened on the mold in Building 18 the rodents and bad food and nightmare of paperwork. But it was the Post's description of formation, the 7 a.m. lineup of injured soldiers necessary to "maintain some discipline," that most unnerved me. Every morning, regardless of weather, the injured assemble. Umbrellas are forbidden, uniforms required. Some soldiers "are so gorked out on pills that they seem on the verge of nodding off." Shades of Scarano. They are reminded to keep warm and avoid beating their spouse and children. Sometimes they are berated for the condition of their rooms or their uniforms or their attitude. There were no soldiers with missing limbs or concave skulls or rearranged faces at Fort Sill, but the condescension and barely concealed cruelty were the same. For the injured soldier, formation enacts the military's ritual of belonging while expressing its disdain. In this single act, the institution tells them that it is taking care of them and that it hates having to do so.

Before he was cashiered as commander of Walter Reed, Gen. George Weightman told the Post that the reason injured soldiers stay so long in the military/medical limbo is that the Army needs to hold on to as many soldiers as it can. It patches up the damaged to send them back into battle, as Mark Benjamin reported in Salon from Fort Benning in March, redeploying troops who, doctors say, are medically unfit, altering medical profiles so that they can kill again. It pushes antidepressants on the psychically damaged in the field to keep up the numbers, as Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman stunningly detailed in the Hartford Courant last May. It displays the injured at basic training posts as a demonstration to the healthy of its caring and as a warning.

On April 20, I received an e-mail from a 24-year-old new recruit from Illinois named Travis Meyers. He had arrived at Fort Sill on Feb. 6, he said, and on his third day there he sat down with a member of post personnel for "a medical moment of truth." Recruiters don't bother to assess the medical fitness of the people they sign up. At basic training, Army personnel have to ask about preexisting conditions, but once presented with a warm body in uniform they are loath to accept any truth that might send that body home. Meyers revealed that a doctor once told him he has heart disease. "The reason that I came forward," he told me, "is because the pushups that we were forced to do and the stress of being yelled at and degraded at any chance had made my chest start hurting extremely bad." He said he had not taken the warning from his civilian doctor seriously before because the condition had never affected him in this way. After dueling EKGs and contradictory medical opinions, Fort Sill decided Meyers was fit for basic training.

"The medical moment of truth is ridiculous because they really don't care," Pvt. Travis Meyers wrote of his introduction to the Army at Fort Sill. "There was a kid that got shipped to basic [training] with two of the four valves of his heart closed. ... I talked to a kid at the TMC -- troop medical clinic -- who had one of his instructors jump on his back and injure him, and it was done twice not just once. ... There was a drill sergeant who kicked a kid in the ribs while he was trying to do pushups."

On March 5, Pvt. Travis Meyers went AWOL. When he wrote he said he was soon to turn himself in: "I'm scared, but not as scared as I would be to go through basic with the way my heart is." His is a normal story, in which the prospect of prison is a step up.

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