Thursday, July 2, 2009

Since troops stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., began returning in 2005 from their first tour of duty in Iraq, 14 current or former soldiers based there have committed, up until December, 12 murders and attempted three.

The spate of violent crimes by soldiers has led to a serious examination by base officials of how the armed forces can help soldiers readjust to civilian life after deployment. Fort Carson commander Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times, said that officials in the past 18 months have introduced four new programs, in addition to the mandatory programs the military already administers, to prevent such occurrences. The Army does not know why these 14 men may have committed the crimes of which they are accused. Fort Carson previously offered the same post-combat programs as other bases.

“How do you identify a person about to commit a crime like this, that is the hard question,” Gen. Graham said. “If the soldier gets in trouble we track that risk factor, multiple events lead to high risk.” He said the hardest part is recognizing which soldiers are going to commit crimes because it is almost impossible to know ahead of time.

Warning signs are sometimes present. Kenneth Eastridge, a Kentucky native and former soldier based at Fort Carson, is unique among the former Fort Carson soldiers who returned home and committed a crime: He is the only one who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before his service. He is now serving a 10-year prison term for accessory to murder. He pleaded guilty in November as an accomplice in the murder of Kevin Shields; the other men convicted of the murder were also stationed at Fort Carson.

Eastridge’s struggle with PTSD began long before his service in the Army. As a 12-year-old, he accidentally shot and killed one of his friends; he pleaded guilty to reckless homicide. He did not go to jail, but received counseling instead. After the shooting incident, he was diagnosed with PTSD. In 2003, he dropped out of high school and was inspired to do something patriotic. He joined the Army.

“They definitely should not have sent me back [to Iraq],” said Eastridge in an interview with HDNet television channel. “They asked me if I wanted to go and I said yeah, I want to go.” Eastridge was a gunner in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment. He was deployed to Iraq in August 2004 and was injured when his humvee exploded in February 2005. He was redeployed after a thorough evaluation in the winter of 2006.

Eastridge said he is guilt-ridden. “Absolutely, I deserve to be where I am. I hate it here; every day is the worst day of my life,” he said. “I did terrible things to people that totally didn’t deserve it … I didn’t even try to stop it. I have tremendous guilt; I think about it all the time. The crimes I have committed didn’t only affect the victim of the crime; you’re victimizing his whole entire family, my whole entire family, all the people I care about and all the people he cares about.”

Soldiers returning from combat are sent to numerous medical departments where they are given thorough mental and physical evaluations, said Gen. Graham. The medical team runs a series of tests that determine the level of mental readiness.

Gen. Graham believes cases such as Eastridge’s are largely exceptions rather than the norm.

“I think what you will find is the vast majority of soldiers don’t come home and do things like that,” he said. “We have over 20,000 soldiers currently stationed at Fort Carson and have had over 100,000 pass through since 9/11. The [number] of soldiers that are committing these atrocities is minuscule in comparison to the larger group.”

He said Fort Carson is trying to identify soldiers with PTSD symptoms before it is too late.

“We are trying to determine one specific reason: Why this guy? How could we have identified this soldier before he did something horrific?” Gen. Graham said.

Eastridge complained in the HDNet interview that he did not get adequate help or diagnosis after he returned from Iraq.

“I have been to Iraq twice, and I have never seen these transition units. We went straight home,” he said. “You had to self-diagnose yourself and say that you had PTSD, and that’s if you want to sit there for hours. If you say you’re fine they kick you out and in almost in a sarcastic tone claim ‘OK, you said you’re fine.’ ”

Gen. Graham denied that claim. “Absolutely there was a program,” he said. “Whether or not he got to it is another question. They tell the soldiers that they have to go to this class and that class when they return. Often the soldiers do not know whether or not that course is a transition course; they are just told to attend.”

Gen. Graham said that policy is changing, and with that change comes four new transition courses. “These four courses are relatively new and weren’t around when Mr. Eastridge committed his crime. We have been trying our best to end the stigma that soldiers are given when they return home from Iraq or Afghanistan.

“Reintegration program starts when soldiers are still deployed overseas. It is a physical and mental analysis that allows us to know who needs what type of treatment when they return home. Military family life consultants, or MFLCs, are assigned to soldiers sixty days after they have returned home,” Gen. Graham said.

“Often the first sixty days back are a honeymoon period where soldiers have been patriots and are looked at as heroes. Once that high comes down, life can become very depressing.”

He said soldiers are encouraged to talk to MFLCs, who dress in civilian clothes, and to confide in them.

In addition, he said, the base has started a program focused on extreme sports, which could help reduce the adrenaline of returning home from war and build skills that allow soldiers to return to normal life.

The base’s most important program, he said, is one on mental toughness and resiliency. “Young soldiers don’t have the base of more experienced soldiers. We need to build their mental toughness. It is normal to be frightened when a bomb goes off. We need to bring them back into normal life.”

Gen. Graham is confident that these new programs are working.

“It has been nine months since any violent crime has been committed by a soldier based at Fort Carson, and while nine months is a relatively short period of time, it is something we are proud of.”

• Aaron Marcus is a political science major at Yeshiva University in New York.

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