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The U.S. military's mental health problem

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If you missed the front-page story in the Washington Post on Sunday about 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, read it now, pronto. I haven't been this outraged since the last time I read an entry in the newspaper's outstanding ongoing investigative series, "Walter Reed and Beyond," which is about the lives of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This time, reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull tell the tale of the 25-year-old Army reservist, a valedictorian of her high school who had earned nothing but accolades during her seven-year career in the military. She once worked as an officer, but faces a court martial because of an attempted suicide when she was serving in Iraq. If tried and convicted, she could face life in prison.  

The short version of the story is this: Whiteside, who was nicknamed the "Trauma Mama" by the medics she supervised in Iraq, worked at the detainee prison where Saddam Hussein was held. While there, she and another female experienced tensions with a male superior officer. She ate only one meal a day and slept in shifts. There's no doubt the atmosphere was stressful. Whiteside began to have panic attacks. Then, when Saddam Hussein was taken from the prison to be executed, violent riots broke out inside the prison. Whiteside ushered doctors to safety, conducted triage, and performed exemplary service. The next day, she experienced what she calls a "psychotic break." In clear distress, she requested to see a mental health nurse. When the nurse checked in on her later in the day, Whiteside waved her gun and eventually shot herself in the stomach.

After being sent to Walter Reed, where ironically she had once worked as an officer, the Army's own psychiatrists diagnosed her with severe major depressive disorder and a personality disorder. Then, a new team stepped in: the Warrior Transition Brigade. Made up of officers with combat experience and whose ostensible aim was to help patient recovery, the team drew up criminal charges against Whiteside. They said she was using her mental illness as an excuse. Whiteside offered to resign, but would have to forfeit the benefits that she's earned in her military career. Her alternative is to face these charges, with the prospect of life in prison.

Her treatment by the Army right now is a total travesty. Combat is hard enough for someone without a predisposition to mental illness. And mental-health issues are hard enough to deal with in civilian life under ideal conditions, never mind in a war zone. Mental illness is a serious medical problem, just as serious as any physical medical condition, and Whiteside ought to be treated as any other wounded soldier. It would be a complete shame if this case is allowed to continue. Kudos to the Washington Post for bringing attention to this important issue.

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