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"We've learned some lessons': Army brass addressing combat stress, but it's too late for some soldiers


Jennings - FILE PHOTO
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Top Army commanders received applause and criticism as the Pentagon's Task Force on Mental Health swept through Fort Carson, amid lingering questions about whether returning combat troops get the psychological care they need.

Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley and Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon acknowledged last week to media that commanders should be better trained to identify mental-health problems. According to one Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, that's an important step.

"Fort Carson is showing it has people who care about this issue," says Steve Robinson, government relations director of Veterans for America. "There are still many, many issues to address, including what will be done for the soldiers who fell through the cracks but brought this issue to light."

Kiley was at Fort Carson as part of a military-wide study to recommend improvements to military mental-health services, particularly for troops with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Troops should not view seeking help as a "career killer," he said.

Jennings' outcome

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About a dozen Fort Carson troops in recent months have been discharged for disciplinary issues such as substance abuse, a symptom of the disorder.

The same day that Kiley spoke to reporters, Tyler Jennings walked off the post for the final time. A negotiated deal allowed the 24-year-old Purple Heart recipient an honorable discharge instead of facing court-martial on a long list of charges, including drug abuse and failure to show up in formation. The black mark of "commission of a serious offense," which Jennings did not specify, will remain on his record.

He will lose his college benefits and must repay the $15,000 bonus he received when he signed a six-year re-enlistment contract.

Jennings says he turned to alcohol and drugs to help forget the gory images of war, including that of a fellow soldier who shot himself in front of the platoon. After crafting a noose and contemplating suicide, Jennings sought help.

But he says he didn't get it on post. Instead, he says, he was called a "shitbag" and only found treatment for his PTSD with a volunteer therapist off-post.

"I just want to get out of the Springs," Jennings said earlier this week via cell phone from Kansas, on his way to his mother's house in upstate New York. "Hopefully things will look up when I get home."

Kiley, acknowledging the controversy surrounding soldiers such as Jennings, was clear that the Army aims to ensure PTSD isn't treated as a discipline problem.

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"I think we've learned some lessons out of that from here and from some other locations," Kiley said. "We are a learning organization. It's our intent to be quick on the turnaround."

Moving forward

Fort Carson officers at all levels are already in the process of receiving special training to identify mental-health issues early, with an eye toward ensuring soldiers receive the care they need.

"We're not going to tolerate biases against soldiers that seek help," Mixon said.

Jennings, meanwhile, was doubtful the Army could really change, because of its emphasis on the tough-mindedness of troops. He thinks more should be done to help soldiers who are no longer mentally prepared for combat to leave the Army with dignity and honor.

"I had nearly hung myself, and they kept piling offenses on me," he said. "This shouldn't have gone on for months on end. But it did as they built a case on me. That's the Army's own form of malingering."

Nearly 600 cases of PTSD emanated from the post last year, a figure slightly reduced from what the post had predicted.

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William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, has directed Kiley to take a closer look into the plight of Fort Carson soldiers with PTSD.

That inquiry is moving forward, Kiley said, adding it is separate from the reason he was on post last week. Members of the 14-member, military-civilian Task Force on Mental Health were on post to meet with soldiers and their families in closed sessions meant to protect privacy.

Kiley spoke generally about 30 similar visits at various military sites only five of which have been open to the public and recurring themes.

"There are concerns about career stigmatizations associated with seeking mental health, sometimes access," Kiley said.

Liz Kaplan, whose son Adam Kaplan served in Iraq, criticized the Fort Carson visit because she wanted to testify.

She says she wanted to ask, "Why wasn't I told my son was diagnosed with PTSD when he was in Iraq?"

When Adam returned home, he was vexed by hallucinations of a sergeant killed by shrapnel from his own grenade launch. Drugs were an escape, he told the Independent earlier this year from a military prison ("Mind game,"

Kaplan is now home in Broomfield.

"He's hanging in there," his mother says.

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