At Fort Hood, Reaching Out to Soldiers at Risk
By JAMES DAO
Published: December 23, 2009
FORT HOOD, Tex. — The day after a gunman killed 13 people here last month, Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, the post’s commander, fired off an e-mail message to an unusual audience: local advocates for disaffected soldiers, deserters and war resisters. “I am told you may be able to help me understand where some of the gaps are in our system,” he wrote.
Last week, those advocates put General Cone’s offer to a test. A specialist who had deserted last year wanted to turn himself in. Would the general help the soldier, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, get care?
The general said yes.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said James Branum, a lawyer representing the specialist, Eric Jasinski. “It is very unusual for the commanding general to get involved.”
For years, Fort Hood has been an emblem of an overstretched military, with long deployments and combat-related stress contributing to rising numbers of suicides, divorces, spousal abuse and crime, mental health experts say.
Now, after the Nov. 5 shootings, the post is trying to show that it has another side, one that can care for its frailest and most battle-weary soldiers.
For the last month, the Pentagon has dispatched scores of psychologists, therapists and chaplains to counsel soldiers and their families, and bolster the post’s chronically understaffed mental health network. It has overseen the creation of a new system of trauma counseling. And it has pledged to speed the hiring of dozens of permanent new mental health specialists.
But the stepped-up efforts, while welcomed even by critics of the Army’s record in dealing with combat-related stress, are also seen as a test of its resolve to break with the past. Making change stick remains a challenge not just for Fort Hood, but the entire Army, as it struggles to improve care for its rising tide of deployment-strained soldiers.
Already, many of the therapists newly dispatched here have left; when all are gone, the post will need at least 40 more, General Cone said. Over all, the Army is short about 800 behavioral health specialists, Pentagon officials say.
Even more daunting will be fighting the ostracism and stigma faced by many soldiers who admit problems.
Although most of his commanders support their troubled soldiers, the general said, “Occasionally what you get is a leader who fails.”
In Specialist Jasinski’s case, one of his commanding officers told the soldier’s mother recently that he did not believe Specialist Jasinski had P.T.S.D., Mr. Branum and the mother said. Since then, doctors have checked the specialist into Fort Hood’s mental ward, concerned that he was suicidal.
Getting soldiers to use Fort Hood’s expanding array of support services — most of which opened not long before Nov. 5 — can be difficult. Many soldiers remain unaware of the family therapy and round-the-clock chaplain counseling in a “spiritual fitness center,” a chaplain said.
A three-week soldier “reset” program uses cranial massage, yoga and acupuncture to alleviate the hyper-vigilance that accompanies the stress disorder, but the program is limited to 16 soldiers at a time.
And General Cone, a West Point graduate who took command here in late September, has maintained a policy started by his predecessor that requires commanders to let their units go home by 3 p.m. on Thursdays and prohibits weekend training, unless he approves it. But complaints abound about extended hours and duties that require soldiers to bring work home.
It is too soon to say whether more soldiers are taking advantage of Fort Hood’s expanded services. But several said the programs helped them cope with the shootings.
“There are a lot of things the Army did to get us through this,” said Lt. Col. Pete Andrysiak, commander of the 20th Engineering Battalion. The battalion, which leaves for Afghanistan early next year, lost more soldiers, four, in last month’s rampage than any other unit.
Specialist Jasinski, 23, who enlisted after high school in 2005, spent 15 months in Diyala Province north of Baghdad. The experience changed him, his family said. A friend was killed; another lost a limb. While serving in an intelligence unit, he said, he collected data used in airstrikes that killed many Iraqis, perhaps including civilians.
After returning home in late 2007, he struggled with depression, excessive drinking and bouts of anger and crying. A doctor told him he had P.T.S.D. and, records show, prescribed antidepressants. Still, he thought he could make it to February 2009, when he was eligible for an honorable discharge.
But in the fall of 2008, Specialist Jasinski learned that the Army had involuntarily extended his tour, scheduling his unit to return to Iraq in 2009. And despite his having the stress disorder, the Army expected him to go.
On the day he was to return to Fort Hood from leave last December, he spent 14 hours in his parents’ living room staring out a window and muttering, “I’d rather die than go back.” His parents told him to stay.
“It’s not about Eric being a coward,” said his mother, Laura Barrett, 46, a counselor’s assistant at a high school in Jonesboro, Ark. “He’s a strong man. And he was intelligent enough to know he could not do it again. He would hurt himself. He might hurt someone else.”
This November, after he spent a year stacking inventory at a big box store, his parents urged him to return to Fort Hood, and he agreed. “The stress of being away without leave and not knowing if I was going to be picked up was an extreme mental drain, every day,” Specialist Jasinski said in a recent interview.
Officials at Fort Hood declined to discuss his case.
Dr. Adam Borah, chief of the resilience and restoration center at the post’s Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, said soldiers with P.T.S.D. are occasionally deployed when their illness seems under control. But some people are deployed because the disorder is not spotted.
“There are still holes in the system,” he said.
General Cone has helped other troubled soldiers, as well as Specialist Jasinski, said Chuck Luther, the founder of an advocacy group, Disposable Warriors. But the general is to deploy to Iraq in March, leaving behind his deputy to oversee Fort Hood for a year. Mr. Luther and other advocates worry that mental health programs will suffer.
General Cone insisted that would not happen. He noted that by the time he leaves, 85 percent of Fort Hood’s soldiers would be home from war, the highest percentage in years. “It happens at a good time for us because, frankly, we need that kind of positive environment,” he said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 25, 2009
An article on Thursday about mental health services for soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex., in the wake of killings there misstated the given name of a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who deserted the post last year. He is Specialist Eric Jasinski, not Chris.
I SALUTE LTG Cone for his leadership on getting help for his troops, and I am sure he will monitor from overseas what is happening on "his base" he may be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan but he will remain the Commander of Fort Hood, his deputy will be in charge but he won't "command" and that is what many people do not understand, while General Cone will not be physically present on Fort Hood he is still the "Commander" of Fort Hood, the deputy in charge if he is good will do only what the Commanding General wants him to do, and if he has doubts about what the Commander wants then it would behoove him and his career to either get on the phone or computer and find out what the Commander wants, it is just that simple. The military is not that hard to figure out, if you are dealing with people that understand the "Command" is exactly that the Commander can go by the "book" if he wants to it is there for guidance, but to actually command means it is "your decision" on what happens, to many military officers confuse what the term to "command" means, and they are the ones who should never be given a command.
Command is a lonely place, it is your call on what you do at times sometimes the Commander makes the right choice and sometimes they make the wrong choice, and history remembers them that way. Custer will always be remembered for failing in such a big way, Patton will always be remembered for his command of tank divisions he was the best, it was his interactions with people that got him in trouble.
I like LTG Cone and I hope he is on the short list of those being considred for his 4th star, I would think he would make a great Chief of Staff of the Army in the next decade.
Thursday, December 31, 2009
At Fort Hood, Reaching Out to Soldiers at Risk