The U.S. military's mental health problem


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.


Welcome to the United States of EuroAmerica?

Photo: ETIENNE ANSOTTE/AFP/Getty Images;
modified by FP

Relations between the United States and members of the European Union, by all accounts, have improved in recent years. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his recent speech to Congress, professed his outright "love" for America. Following Sarko's speech, President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had what was by most accounts an amicable meeting in Crawford. And relations with British PM Gordon Brown, while not as warm as those Bush had with former PM Tony Blair, are progressing.

Most attribute the improvement in U.S./Euro relations to Bush's departure from his "with us or against us" attitude surrounding the Iraq war. It also doesn't hurt that Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac—no fans of the U.S. president—are no longer around.

But other, deeper factors might be at work. A new survey from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, released Wednesday morning, finds that majorities in America and Europe share many of the same economic worries—immigration, currency fluctuations, fear of the Chinese economy, and job losses due to globalization—and would "support a new initiative aimed at deepening transatlantic trade and investment." Interestingly, (non-British) Europeans feel even more threatened by China's rise than Americans do.

While we should always be wary of polls that support an organization's raison d'être, I do wonder what such an "initiative" would look like. Most likely, it would mean an expansion of existing trade and investment relationships—probably nothing as grandiose as Mitt Romney's proposal for a "Reagan Zone of Economic Freedom." But doesn't this also, on some level, sound like those polled favor a transatlantic partnership similar to the European Union? A U.S./EU trading block, perhaps?

I know this sounds far-fetched, and admittedly it is. But the European Union evolved into a trading block for many of same reasons cited by those polled: immigration, currency, competitiveness, and weak individual economies. Decades from now, when China has the most powerful economy in the world, will a similar union between the United States and Europe be the only way to stay competitive? Like I said, far-fetched. But 60 years ago, so was the European Union.