Army Sends Soldiers with PTSD Back to Combat
The army says Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is treatable and sends some soldiers diagnosed with it back to combat. One Ozarks soldier shares his experience in a war zone and how he's trying to cope with PTSD.
Reporter and Photographer
SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—The soldier accused in a shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan is facing the death penalty. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is officially charged in the murders of 17 Afghan civilians. He also faces six counts of attempted murder.
The military says his trial will be at his home base of Fort Lewis, Washington, but for now he's being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The incident has led army officials to take a closer look at its mental health programs. Bales' attorney says he does not know if his client has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the number of soldiers who do- and stay in combat- may shock you.
Between 2000 and 2011 more than 76,000 soldiers were diagnosed with PTSD and the majority of those happened in the war zone. The army says PTSD is treatable, so it's safe for some soldiers with it to return to combat; but not all of them.
"That's such a great picture; I like that one," counselor Shelah Schenkel says as she and Justin Hefner flip through stacks of photographs.
Hefner is glad someone likes them.
"Do you not look at the pictures very often?" Schenkel asks him.
"How long has it been since you looked at them?" she presses.
"Probably a year, because I found them on accident," he replies.
They're hard to look at. They're hard to talk about, with us, and with himself.
"Sometimes I even have a hard time dealing with myself," Hefner admits.
Specialist Hefner volunteered to go to Iraq with the Illinois National Guard. Once there, he volunteered to be a gunner, but he didn't volunteer for this: "The nightmares, daymares, whatever you want to call it. The shakes, the sweats."
Hefner has PTSD. He was honorably discharged from the army because of it; he wishes he hadn't been.
"I didn't want to leave the military," he tells us. Of course he had to, but not all soldiers who are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder do.
Schenkel, a veteran herself, says the army's decision to re-deploy people with PTSD isn't necessarily the wrong one.
"It would depend on the degree of PTSD they have, what their symptoms and triggers are. I think it would completely depend on the individual. I think you could be hyper-vigilant because of sounds and that's probably not going to hurt too much if you go back into combat," Schenkel explains.
Hefner's side effects-- "I was blown up by two IEDs at the same time, caught in between them"- run much deeper than hyper-vigilance.
"iI mean the anxiety of it sometimes... I start shaking, but it's what I've got to live with I guess."
As badly as he wants it he now admits he probably couldn't return to combat.
"The army made the best choice," he says. And Hefner's made the best choice too-- he's getting help. That means tackling his greatest challenge since iraq. Now he has to remember it.
Hefner is also getting help from the VA. He regularly sees a doctor at the clinic in Mount Vernon. When the two IED's exploded on either side of his humvee he suffered some brain damage. The army doesn't keep track of the exact number of soldiers in combat who have been diagnosed with PTSD at some point or how many in warzones are taking medication for PTSD.