By William Fisher
The year was 1951. The Korean “police action” was raging. I was a draftee NCO in a military police unit safely nestled in a major American city. But my comrades and I lived each day under the long, dark shadow of being shipped out to fight in a frozen country most of us couldn’t find on a map.
Like most army units, my company had a “welfare fund” – money collected from our fellow troops, to be used for their benefit: for Christmas parties, summer barbeques, gifts for newly married buddies, and suchlike.
The fund had to have a treasurer –someone to collect, hold and account for the money. But no one wanted the job. More paperwork was exactly what none of us needed.
But one of us had a brilliant idea. We would go sell the idea to the private we all referred to as “The Idiot.” We would persuade him that being “The Treasurer” would get him known and enhance his chances of promotion.
The Idiot was good kid, but strange. I mean really strange. His buddies thought he was “a little crazy.” He was alternately depressed and euphoric, pastoral and warlike. He would arrive back at our base after a three-day pass with a big wide toothy grin and enough doughnuts for the whole company. Five minutes later he would be on the brink of apoplexy, raging against the army, the draft, his parents, the Koreans. Five minutes after that he would be sitting alone in a corner of our barracks, staring morosely at his boots for an hour, seemingly oblivious to things going on around him. After that hour, we would see him ebulliently bounding down the aisle between the beds, trumpeting some brilliant new idea to remake the military. And five minutes later, he would be smashing furniture and throwing boots and chairs at his comrades. The Idiot’s behaviors were as unpredictable as they were bizarre.
But he was our only candidate. Long story short: We got him to take the treasurer’s job, and he dutifully gave us a monthly accounting of how much money was in our welfare fund, receipts for what was spent, and a report on likely future expenses.
The rest of us, if we thought about it at all, were happy with our solution. We thought we’d pulled off a coup. Until December, that is, just before our company Christmas party. It was then The Idiot told us we couldn’t have a Christmas party that year, but that this was really a good thing because he’d spent our money buying toys for poor kids.
The Idiot was court martialed, spent a year in the stockade (Army-speak for jail), and dishonorably discharged.
I haven’t thought about that episode in more than half a century. But that’s where my mind went as I read the harrowing story of 1st Lieutenant Elizabeth Whiteside.
Though described by one of her Iraq comrades as “A Soldier’s Officer,” Lt. Whiteside may finally learn this week whether she will be treated for severe mental illness and given the appropriate benefits to pay for her care – or court-martialed and face the possibility of life in prison.
The charges now being considered against her: Attempting suicide and endangering the life of another soldier while serving in Iraq.
The military prosecutor, Maj. Stefan Wolfe, argues that, even after seven years of exemplary service, the 25-year-old Army reservist should be court-martialed. Under military law, soldiers who attempt suicide can be prosecuted because their action affects unit order and discipline and discredits the armed forces.
In Whiteside’s case, prosecutors consider her mental illness "an excuse" for criminal conduct. But the military psychiatrists at Walter Reed who examined her after she recovered from her self-inflicted gunshot wound have diagnosed her with a severe mental disorder, possibly triggered by the stresses of a war zone.
The prosecutor has warned Whiteside's lawyer of the risk of using a "psychobabble" defense. But a senior psychiatrist at Walter Reed, asked to justify his diagnosis of severe mental illness, responded angrily: "I'm not here to play legal games. I am here out of the genuine concern for a human being that's breaking and that is broken. She has a severe and significant illness. Let's treat her as a human being, for Christ's sake!"
At one point, Whiteside requested that she be allowed to resign to avoid a court-martial. But the result of that course would mean having to spend the rest of her life explaining why she didn’t receive an honorable discharge, living with the still-present stigma being mentally ill – and probably losing her medical care and benefits.
Walter Reed’s commander, Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, a physician and now Army surgeon general, agrees. He said, "This officer has a demonstrably severe depression which manifested itself . . . as a psychotic, self-destructive episode. . .. Resignation in lieu of court-martial eliminates all of the benefits of medical support this officer deserves after seven years of credible and honorable service."
But many other members of the uniformed military involved in the case take the opposite view. One of them said, "Although the sanity board determined that at the time of the misconduct she had a severe mental disease or defect, she knowingly assaulted and threatened others and injured herself."
Whiteside, who is now a psychiatric outpatient at Walter Reed, ran a medical unit at the very same hospital until 2006, when she volunteered to deploy to Iraq. She told the Washington Post that seeing so many casualties at Walter Reed made her feel she was not bearing her full responsibility.
The bare details: In Iraq, she was assigned as a platoon leader in a medical company at the Camp Cropper detainee prison, which housed 4,000 suspected terrorists and insurgents, and included such high-security prisoners as Saddam Hussein and Ali Hassan Majeed, known as "Chemical Ali."
Whiteside supervised nine medics who worked the night shift at the prison, ate one meal a day and worked seven days a week, dispatching drivers, medics and support staff to transport sick and wounded Iraqis and U.S. troops. Her superiors credit her with her unit's success.
Given the radio handle "Trauma Mama," the high school valedictorian and ROTC grad told the Washington Post, "I loved our mission because it represented the best of America: taking care of the enemy, regardless of what they are doing to us."
Sometime after Hussein’s execution, a nurse in Whiteside’s unit reported that Whiteside was "freaking out." The nurse found Whiteside sitting on her bed, mumbling and visibly upset.
When comrades tried to help, Whiteside resisted and told them to leave. At one point, she fired her pistol into the ceiling. Later, she pointed the weapon at one of her colleagues, yelling that she wanted to kill them. When she opened her door she saw armed soldiers approaching. She slammed the door shut and fired her weapon once into her stomach. She was still in serious condition when she arrived at Walter Reed a few days later.
There are many more details I’m not going to try to cover here. The Washington Post first told Lt. Whiteside’s story in a brilliant report by Dana Priest and Anne Hull in the December 2 paper. It’s well worth reading, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/01/AR2007120101782.html.
The point of all this is that, despite monumental advances in mental illness diagnosis and therapy, and endless pronouncements from the White House and the Pentagon about how deeply concerned they are about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other combat-related psychological problems, the Army doesn’t seem to have moved very far from “The Idiot” of my 1951 MP unit.
Back then, doctors knew virtually nothing about how to diagnose, much less treat, his psychological disorder. His buddies thought of him as a little crazy. So The Idiot was tried, jailed and dishonorably discharged.
But today, both diagnosis and treatment are real options – and they are happening every day. They happen when mental health professionals, not military prosecutors, get listened to and believed.
This week we may find out whether the Army has been listening.