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Army Training Regimen Brutal in US, Needs Overhauling

May 11, 2007 at 11:50 AM Mental Health News   - G J E 4
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Two months after the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scam broke out, soul searching questions are raised across the US over the way the injured veterans are treated. And now commentators are charging that the army's very training programme is inhuman and that those who manage to come out unscathed at the end of it all should count themselves lucky.

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, says JoAnn Wypijewski.

Basic training is one of those regimens of cruelty that people have come to accept as normal. The Army may claim to have eliminated some of its most abusive practices, but the theory of "breaking them down to build them up," still remains intact, it is felt.

A drill sergeant kicked a soldier in his bad knee, sending him to the floor screaming. He also punished and terrorized the soldiers in numerous other ways. Those who have the misfortune of being seriously injured and have to be pulled out of the rigours of it all, even if temporarily, are routinely described as "fakers," "lady men," "shitsacks," "malingerers." During occasional visits outsiders could see the injured moving on crutches, wearing casts.

Weakness is despised. 15 to 37 percent of men and the 38 to 67 percent of women who sustain at least one injury during training at Fort Sill, Fort Knox, Fort Jackson, Fort Leonard Wood or Fort Benning are in trouble.

Those injured are consigned to the physical training and rehabilitation program. PTRP is a limbo of sorts. While 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.

They could also 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

In March last year Matthew Scarano, 21, in the PTRP was found dead in his bunk. He had been recuperating for more than a year with a shoulder injury and suffering excruciating pain. It was unlikely he would ever be fit for battle, but he could not get out. 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.

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.

"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.

"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," writes an activist.

A soldier 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, though.

The Washington Post's expose of the Walter Reed scam included the story of Cpl. Jeremy Harper, 19, who had seen three of his buddies die in Iraq and was a victim of severe post traumatic stress disorder (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. "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.

In Walter Reed, for instance, 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."

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

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.

But the problem is far more deep rooted to be tackled with such tentative efforts, it is pointed out. Perhaps the trainers have to be trained first, it is felt.

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