By William Kates, Associated Press. Published May 14, 2007.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A 10th Mountain Division soldier facing a bad conduct discharge for going AWOL says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is being court martialed because he went home for help after the Army failed to provide him with adequate treatment.
“They don’t want the liability so they deny I have a problem, and because I tried to help myself, now they want to make me a criminal,” Spc. Eugene Cherry said in a telephone interview from Fort Drum, where he is restricted to post pending a court martial.
Cherry served as a combat medic in Iraq for a year with the division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, returning to Fort Drum in June 2005. That November, he took an unauthorized leave from the Army, returning to his native Chicago to live with his mother and find mental health treatment.
“This is not a borderline case. There is no question about his diagnosis,” said Dr. Hannah Frisch, a clinical psychologist who diagnosed Cherry with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.
Frisch prepared a six-page report on Cherry’s condition. She hoped to meet Monday with Cherry’s commanders and post mental health officials to discuss his case.
Frisch said Cherry needed intensive, individualized psychotherapy, not just drugs, to treat his condition.
“Here’s a young man, a combat veteran who has clearly sacrificed a great deal for his country. It appalls me that they are treating him like a criminal when he needs mental help,” said Frisch, who said she has treated other soldiers but never before taken such an advocacy role on a soldier’s behalf.
Fort Drum officials were not immediately available to comment on Cherry’s case, said Army spokesman Ben Abel, who was unaware of the specifics of Cherry’s case.
“Our records indicate he was receiving treatment. But if a soldier goes AWOL, they negate the opportunity for treatment,” Abel said.
Cherry, 24, joined the Army in October 2002 and re-enlisted for a second tour while overseas.
Cherry told Frisch that in Iraq his biggest fear was being kidnapped and beheaded, according to the report. He regularly saw the burned and charred bodies of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens. He saw a lieutenant shot in the head.
Cherry said the most disturbing incident he saw came when an Army ordnance team attempted to blow up a minivan that had been found loaded with explosives, propane tanks and flammables. The explosion leveled a nearby three-story apartment building, injuring dozens of residents.
The first victim Cherry went to help was a middle-aged Iraqi woman. When he turned her over, Cherry found half her face was blown off. The nightmares began soon after that, then the sleeplessness, followed by the weight loss and depression, the report said.
During the last three months of his deployment, Cherry saw a military psychologist and was put on anti-depression medication.
Cherry said when he returned to Fort Drum in June 2005, he sought counseling but experienced only postponements and reschedulings.
“They just kept putting treatment off. They told me to basically deal with it. I made everyone in the chain of command aware that I was having issues. They just blew it off,” Cherry said.
The post mental health clinic has 11 psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to serve nearly 17,000 soldiers and their families.
After a year of treatment at home with Frisch, Cherry felt he was strong enough to return to Fort Drum to resolve his status with the Army. During that time, Cherry said he made no effort to hide and the Army made no attempt to find him.
When he arrived back at Fort Drum in March, he had one therapy session and was again put on a regimen of drugs. Two weeks ago, he was told he was being court martialed.
Not only does a bad conduct discharge bring the potential of up to a year in a military prison, it also would make Cherry ineligible for veteran’s medical benefits and remains a permanent part of his record as a felony conviction, said Tod Ensign, the legal director of Citizen Soldier, a GI rights group that is supporting Cherry.
“Eugene is a case study of what is happening Army-wide. The military needs to start taking care of its soldiers, not casting them aside,” Ensign said.
With approximately 3,500 troops with the 2nd Brigade scheduled to begin returning home next month from Iraq, it is essential that Fort Drum be prepared for more troubled troops, Ensign said. A previous New England Journal of Medicine study showed nearly one in five returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan experience measurable levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.