Category Archives: Veterans Issues

Shaken Troops Face New Foe: Early Dementia

The most devastating impact of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be on soldiers’ brains, and many of the injured likely don’t even know it. At least not yet.

Wired | Sep 23, 2011

As I describe in the new issue of Nature, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that these injured troops, who could easily number in the hundreds of thousands, face a heightened risk of early-onset dementia, and other diseases that attack the brain.

Worse, by Pentagon officials’ own admission, the military effectively ignored many cases of mild Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, primary caused by exposure to roadside bombs, for the better part of six years. One study, published in 2008 by a group of Army researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine, even downplayed the role of mild TBI, suggesting that people should use the word “concussion” rather than “mild traumatic brain injury” to avoid perpetuating the belief they are suffering from a long-term injury.

But with evidence mounting of troops returning home with severe neurological impairment, that attitude has finally changed. And over the past two years, a combination of a better science, and growing awareness among military leaders about the scope of the potential epidemic, has finally led to new policies and treatment for those suffering from mild TBI.

What exactly was the tipping point for this change is hard to pinpoint, as I note in this edition of latest edition of Nature, which focuses on military science. But one crucial moment came in 2009 when Marine Corps commandant General James Amos toured Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, and was introduced to a patient who said, with considerable effort, “General, I know who you are. I have a picture of you and I together in Iraq.”

It turned out that Amos had a copy of the picture, too. It had been taken just two years earlier, when he had posed with a group of Marines who had just survived an IED that had detonated directly under their vehicle. Thanks to the vehicle’s advanced armor, all of them seemed unscathed. But this young man, a bomb-disposal expert, went straight back to work and was quickly exposed to several more blasts. His physical condition deteriorated rapidly, his life began to unravel and — after some difficulty getting the military medical establishment to recognize his TBI — he had been admitted to Walter Reed with severe neurological problems.

Amos describes the meeting as a seminal moment for him. “This TBI business is real, and we’ve got to get past the point of ignoring it,” he recalls of his reaction. “We need to do something about it.”

According to official Pentagon statistics, over 200,000 troops have suffered some form of Traumatic Brain Injury over the past 10 years, and independent estimates, such as those from Rand Corp., suggest the real number could be even higher. By the Pentagon’s own admission, many soldiers who likely suffered this invisible form of TBI were never screened for concussions prior to 2009-2010.

Army suicides at a record high last month

A soldier on patrol in Afghanistan. Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

CNN | Aug 16, 2011

By Larry Shaughnessy

The U.S. Army reported 32 suicides and potential suicides in the month of July, the highest total since the service began publicly releasing such statistics 2 ½ years ago. And the problem is even worse than the Pentagon’s news releases would indicate.

Each month the Army sends out a press report saying how many soldiers have committed suicide.

According to those news releases, as of July 31 of this year 151 soldiers had apparently taken their own lives.

But a document obtained by CNN shows that the Army has actually counted 163 suicides this year.

The Army counts them in terms of confirmed suicides and “potential” suicides, which are deaths that are suspected of being suicide but the official investigation has not been completed. Most of the time, potential suicides are confirmed as actual suicides.

As for why 12 of the suicides were not included in the news releases, Lt. Col. Laurel Devine explained that sometimes, long after the news releases go out, investigators realize a soldier’s death is at least a “potential” suicide.

The problem may also come from the fact that of the four branches of service, the Army is the most transparent about the issue of suicide.
The Army is the only branch that sends out a monthly news release, while the other services will release the suicide information only when asked.

“Every suicide represents a tragic loss to our Army and the Nation. While the high number of potential suicides in July is discouraging, we are confident our efforts aimed at increasing individuals’ resiliency, while reducing incidence of at-risk and high-risk behavior across the Force, are having a positive impact,” Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff and its point man on the issue of suicide, said in a statement.  “We absolutely recognize there is much work to be done and remain committed to ensuring our people are cared for and have ready access to the best possible programs and services.”

Chiarelli spends much of his time dealing with the suicide issue and looking for answers, in part because the problem appears to be much worse for the Army than the other branches.

So far in 2011, the Air Force has had 28 suicides, the Marines 21 and the Navy 33. Even though those three services have a combined total force equal to the Army’s, their number of suicides are about half the Army’s 163.

No one knows why it’s worse among the Army other than the fact that it’s the biggest branch of service.

“Any act of suicide is a tragedy,” said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon. “It’s often very difficult to have any sort of causal relationship to these trends. Each one of them is an individual set of circumstances that range from broken relationship to stress from deployments.”

Families of military suicide victims call for widened condolence policy | July 7, 2011

By Steve Vogel

Marine Sgt. Thomas R. Bagosy returned from a combat tour in Afghanistan in November 2009 suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Six months later, when officials at Camp Lejeune, N.C., tried to hospitalize him for treatment, Bagosy shot himself in the head during a standoff with military police.

The White House this week reversed its policy against extending official condolences to the families of military personnel who kill themselves, but the change applies only to those who commit suicide in officially designated combat zones.

In cases such as the one involving Bagosy, 25, who died in the United States, but after clear indication of mental disorder related to his war experiences, survivors still will be left without the comfort of a presidential letter.

“I’m angry at this — I really am,” Bagosy’s father, Robert, who also served in the Marine Corps, said Thursday. “Honestly, this is like a slap in the face. A condolence letter means a lot. It’s not going to bring my son back, but it matters.”


Suicide: For some South Florida veterans, it’s the biggest threat

The previous White House policy, inherited from past administrations, was to send presidential letters of condolence to families of service members who die in combat zones, with a “specific exemption for suicide,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “The key point here is we have put suicide on equal footing with other deaths.”

Presidential condolence letters are not routine when members of the military die away from war zones, no matter the cause. The policy review, officials said, was focused only on how to handle suicides that occurred in war zones.

The military long has struggled with how to handle suicide. While Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has supported changing the White House policy to extend condolences in cases of suicide, some in the military have been opposed, in part because of worries that it might lead to more suicides.

In a statement announcing the policy change on Wednesday, President Obama said: “This decision was made after a difficult and exhaustive review of the former policy, and I did not make it lightly. This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely. They didn’t die because they were weak.”

About two-thirds of military suicides take place outside combat zones, and many of these suicides are related to PTSD or other combat-related stresses. Advocates for military families argue that the treatment of the next of kin should not depend on where the suicide occurred.

“It doesn’t matter how they died, it’s how they lived and how they served,” said Kim Ruocco, national director of suicide education and outreach for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization providing support for military families. “This is a common story; why does it matter where he died?”

Her husband, Maj. John Ruocco, a Marine Cobra helicopter pilot who flew 75 combat missions during a deployment to Iraq, killed himself in 2005, three months after returning home to Camp Pendleton, Calif. “He came back from war and was completely different,” she said.

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For the second year in a row, U.S. military lost more troops to suicide than to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan

More troops lost to suicide | Jan 23, 2011

By John Donnelly

For the second year in a row, the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reasons are complicated and the accounting uncertain — for instance, should returning soldiers who take their own lives after being mustered out be included?

But the suicide rate is a further indication of the stress that military personnel live under after nearly a decade of war.

Figures released by the armed services last week showed an alarming increase in suicides in 2010, but those figures leave out some categories.

Overall, the services reported 434 suicides by personnel on active duty, significantly more than the 381 suicides by active-duty personnel reported in 2009. The 2010 total is below the 462 deaths in combat, excluding accidents and illness. In 2009, active-duty suicides exceeded deaths in battle.

Last week’s figures, though, understate the problem of military suicides because the services do not report the statistics uniformly. Several do so only reluctantly.

Figures reported by each of the services last week, for instance, include suicides by members of the Guard and Reserve who were on active duty at the time. The Army and the Navy also add up statistics for certain reservists who kill themselves when they are not on active duty.

But the Air Force and Marine Corps do not include any non-mobilized reservists in their posted numbers. What’s more, none of the services count suicides that occur among a class of reservists known as the Individual Ready Reserve, the more than 123,000 people who are not assigned to particular units.

Suicides by veterans who have left the service entirely after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan also are not counted by the Defense Department. The Department of Veterans Affairs keeps track of such suicides only if the person was enrolled in the VA health care system — which three-quarters of veterans are not.

But even if such veterans and members of the Individual Ready Reserve are excluded from the suicide statistics, just taking into account the deaths of reservists who were not included in last week’s figures pushes the number of suicides last year to at least 468.

That total includes some Air Force and Marine Corps reservists who took their own lives while not on active duty, and it exceeds the 462 military personnel killed in battle.

The problem of reservists’ suicides, in particular, has been a major concern to some lawmakers. A Pentagon study this year confirmed that reservists lack the support structure that active-duty troops have.

Some types of reservists are more cut off than others. Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, says that members of the Individual Ready Reserve and other categories of citizen-soldiers do not receive a thorough screening for mental health issues when they return from deployments.

One of those soldiers, a constituent of Holt’s named Coleman S. Bean, was an Army sergeant and Iraq War veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder but could not find treatment. He took his own life in 2008.

Moved by Bean’s story, Holt wrote a bill requiring phone contacts with these reservists every 90 days after they come home from war. The House adopted Holt’s provision as part of its defense authorization bills for both fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011. But conferees writing the final version of the bills took it out both years.

Holt said in December that Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was responsible for that decision in the most recent bill. A spokeswoman for McCain, Brooke Buchanan, would not state his position on the provision. Instead, she said House members had removed it.

A House Armed Services Committee spokeswoman, Jennifer Kohl, said the House reluctantly pulled the provision from the bill because of the opposition of senators, whom she did not name.

Holt said a fuller reckoning of the number of suicides among military personnel and veterans is needed not so much to tell lawmakers and the public that there is a problem — that, he says, they know. Rather, it is needed to more accurately gauge the extent to which programs to help troubled troops are having an effect.

“In order to know whether the steps we’ve taken work,” Holt said, “we’re going to have to have more detailed knowledge of who’s out there.”

Mystery surrounding murder of former Bush aide John Wheeler deepens with clues of his last moves

In this 1994 photo, Wheeler touches the name of a friend engraved in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Tasnadi/AP

NY Daily News | Jan 4, 2011

BY Helen Kennedy

The mystery of the murdered former Pentagon official found in a Delaware landfill on New Year’s Eve deepened on Tuesday as cops zeroed in on his final movements – but failed to locate a crime scene.

John Parsons Wheeler, 66, best known for helping to get the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built in Washington, was last seen publicly the day before his body tumbled into a Wilmington landfill on Friday.

A passerby spotted Wheeler, who lived six miles away in New Castle, Del., at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in downtown Wilmington.

Sometime after that, his body was put into a commercial Dumpster in Newark, Del. – about 12 miles from his home and 15 miles from Wilmington. It fell into the landfill from a truck that picked up trash in Newark on Friday morning.

Police won’t say how he died.

* In Harlem, cops – with Wheeler’s distraught wife, Katherine Klyce, in tow – searched their W. 124th St. condo Monday night but left empty-handed, according to staff at the luxury building. Klyce, who runs a Cambodian textile business from the ninth-floor apartment, was traveling when her husband went missing.

This is the second time Klyce has been hit by a high-profile murder mystery. Her sister, Emily Klyce Fisher, a wealthy society woman in Memphis, was stabbed 50 times in her home in 1995. The killing was unsolved until 2003, when a TV show led to a friend of Fisher’s druggie son.

The family issued a statement asking for privacy.

* At Klyce and Wheeler’s New Castle home, reporters saw kitchen floorboards pried up while cops were searching. It wasn’t clear who pried them up – or why.

Cops said the house was not the murder scene. “We don’t have a crime scene,” said Newark Police Lt. Mark Farrall.

* Neighbor Ron Roark told The (Wilmington) News Journal that for four days over Christmas, he heard a TV blaring night and day inside Wheeler’s house, even though no one seemed to be home.

“It was so loud, we could hear it through the walls, and we found that strange,” Roark told the newspaper.

* Wheeler had an ongoing lawsuit against another neighbor, Frank Marini, who is building a home that would block Wheeler’s view.

On Tuesday, Dec. 28, a smoke bomb was thrown into the Marinis’ unfinished house. Cops say they don’t know if it is connected to Wheeler’s murder.

Wheeler, a defense contractor, was special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force from 2005 to 2008.

Former Bush aide found murdered, body dumped in landfill

John Wheeler III’s body was found at a landfill in Wilmington. Wheeler recommended that the United States not use biological weapons. Delaware Photo: AP

Former Reagan and Bush aide found murdered in rubbish dump

A veteran of Republican presidential administrations, including those of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, has been found dead in a dump in Delaware.

Telegraph | Jan 4, 2011

The body of John Wheeler III, who also helped lead efforts to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, was discovered on New Year’s Eve as a rubbish truck emptied its contents at a landfill. His death has been ruled a homicide.

Wheeler, 66, retired from the military in 1971 and lived in Delaware state. He had worked in the Reagan Defence Department and also served as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force in the George W Bush administration.

The former Army officer reportedly was last seen Dec. 28, on the train from Washington to the Delaware capital, Wilmington.

Police have determined that all the stops made Friday by the garbage truck before it arrived at the landfill involved large commercial disposal bins, several miles from Wheeler’s home.

“He was just not the sort of person who would wind up in a landfill,” said Bayard Marin, a lawyer representing Wheeler in a property dispute, said.

Wheeler, the son of a decorated Army officer, was a graduate of the US Military Academy and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He was the first chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and led the multimillion-dollar fund-raising effort to create the memorial on the National Mall.

Fund founder and President Jan Scruggs said Wheeler dedicated himself to ensuring that service members are given the respect they deserve.

“I know how passionate he was about honouring all who serve their nation, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Mr Scruggs said.

In addition to chairing the memorial fund, Wheeler served as a special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force. He also was the first chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Wheeler’s military career included serving in the office of the secretary of defence and writing a manual on the effectiveness of biological and chemical weapons, which recommended that the United States not use biological weapons.

US National Guard suicide rate nearly doubles

US National Guard soldiers returning home to face further difficulties.

Press TV | Nov 27, 2010

Statistics have revealed that the suicide rate among non-active members of the US National Guard has almost doubled this year.

Nearly twice as many American soldiers, who are not on active duty, have committed suicide in 2010 as the number that took their own lives last year, while the suicide rate among active duty soldiers has not increased, USA TODAY reports.

This growth in suicide rates has been linked to drug abuse, brain injuries incurred during active service, depression, and the country’s current bleak economic situation (home foreclosures, debt and unemployment), said Chris Philbrick, the deputy commander of an Army task force working to reduce suicides.

As of October, 86 non-active soldiers have taken their own lives this year, which is nearly double the entire 2009 number of suicides, which was 48.

There were 252 confirmed or suspected suicides among active and non-active Army members through October of this year. There were 242 such deaths in all of 2009, the report says.

These statistics could reinforce the fact that active-duty soldiers have greater access to programs and mental health resources, Philbrick says.