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Were pleas of Marine ignored?

Published December 31, 2006 1:21 am

Friends of Walter Smith say he had post-traumatic stress and that the VA repeatedly brushed off his cries for help
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Walter Smith was loading a shotgun, apparently intent on killing himself, when Pleasant Grove police officers intervened in the summer of 2004.

Friends say it was a cry for help from the former Marine who had recently returned from Iraq - a demonstration of Smith's problems that should have resulted in immediate treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, a combat-related condition common to returning soldiers.



Instead, Smith spent two days in a mental health facility before being released with instructions "to find counseling," according to friends.

Now the 24-year-old veteran is in the Tooele County jail, awaiting trial on a murder charge.

Some veterans advocates say Smith's story is an alarming tale - one they fear may be repeated as more combat vets return home from Iraq and Afghanistan. They say victims of war-related post-traumatic stress - and especially reservists like Smith - aren't being given the care they need when they return home from battle.

And military policies aimed at eliminating troubled troops from the ranks may be exacerbating the problem.

Young warriors

Smith was 20 years old when he arrived in Iraq with members of a Marine Reserve unit in the spring of 2003, crossing the Kuwaiti border in unarmored vehicles to begin a bloody tour of duty that Marine officials say involved brutal fighting and numerous Iraqi civilian deaths.

After returning home from the war, fellow Marines say, Smith had trouble coping with the consequences of combat - to the point that he found it difficult to fire his rifle during weekend drills.

Ultimately, he was discharged from the Marine Corps "for medical issues," according to unit officials. Fellow Marines say his psychiatric troubles were the cause of his ouster.

Smith's ejection was not unique. Since 2001, the military has discharged more than 22,000 service members from its ranks for "personality disorder," a classification once referred to as a "Section 8," according to the Department of Defense.

Kathleen Gilberd, a counselor with the San Diego-based Military Counseling Project, said many service members discharged because of personality disorders, medical issues and other grounds are in fact struggling with post-traumatic stress.

About one-third of service members seeking medical treatment from the Veterans Health Administration have reported symptoms of stress or mental illness, according to a June report from the VA. Of those, about half had possible post-traumatic stress, the report said.

Though those figures would appear to make combat stress the largest medical condition suffered by veterans of the current wars, the ailment is not handled the same as other injuries.

For instance, had Smith lost an arm or leg in Iraq, he would have received orders to Walter Reed Army Medical Center or another U.S. military medical facility.

And that's where he would have stayed until a treatment oversight board determined he was ready to continue his military service or could successfully transition into civilian life - even if he had requested to handle his problems on his own.

But because many post-traumatic stress symptoms do not appear until months after a service member's return from combat, those with the disorder don't get the same kind of "tough love."

Instead, when symptoms - including "occupational instability" - appear, service members like Smith often are discharged for failing to maintain military standards, Gilberd said.

"Often what we find is folks who are showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms which are treated as misconduct," Gilberd said. "So they are discharged by reason of misconduct, usually with other-than-honorable discharge."

Sometimes, veterans advocates say, that leaves former service members ineligible for treatment by the VA.

By virtue of his medical discharge, Smith was able to access care within the VA system.

But Wayde Broberg, Smith's former roommate and a fellow member of the Utah-based company of Marines called to duty for the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, said that was a mixed blessing at best.

Old troubles

Broberg doesn't believe his friend is responsible for the March 26 drowning death of Nicole Speirs, the 22-year-old mother of Smith's children, in the bathtub of a home in Tooele.

Rather, he believes, Smith "may have admitted to something as a cry for help."

Either way, friends say, Smith's current troubles appear to be rooted in his inability to find sufficient help early on.

Broberg said he and Smith hung out with a group of about eight Marines, all of whom saw heavy fighting in Iraq and all of whom suffered from post-traumatic stress.

"In our little circle of pals - we hung out together, we fought together - none of us still go to the VA because it's a waste of time," Broberg said. "Wally was the only one still trying to go."

Broberg said Smith "tried 100 different times" to get help from the Veterans Affairs medical system.

"Probably two or four times a month, he'd go up to the VA," he said. "He didn't get what he was looking for."

Susan Huff, a spokeswoman for the George E. Wallen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City, where Smith and his fellow Marines say they sought treatment, would not respond to questions about individual cases but said the number of veterans being assessed for post-traumatic stress has increased 75 percent over the past year.

She said veterans are offered a litany of services, including group and individual programs.

But as demand for such treatment increases, there have been questions about quality. The VA Office of Inspector General concluded in a recent report that post-traumatic stress disorder treatment at the VA "is woefully inadequate."

Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, put it another way: He called the lack of support the Utah Marines appear to have received for their illnesses "par for the course."

"There's a joke in the veterans' community: If you don't have post-traumatic stress disorder before you arrive at the VA, you'll have it before you leave," Rieckhoff said, "because you'll get so aggravated with dealing with all the red tape."

Rieckhoff, himself a veteran of hundreds of combat patrols through Baghdad, said Americans should be disappointed at the care being given to those who volunteer to fight but not surprised, given the level of support troops have received throughout the conflict in Iraq.

"Our country didn't plan for enough body armor, we didn't plan for enough troops and the same will be true on the back end," he said.

And that infuriates Gilberd, the San Diego military rights counselor.

"This is not a new problem for the military," she said. "This is something that veterans taught the military and the rest of us about during and after the Vietnam War. These lessons should have been absorbed a long time ago."

Because those lessons weren't learned, Rieckhoff said, "there is a real crisis looming."

"There needs to be a proactive system, not one that waits for problems to develop," he said. "We can pay for the transitional care, pay for screenings and pay for a proactive approach now, or we can pay for jail cells, lawyers and trials later on."

mlaplante@sltrib.com

 

 

 

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