Battleland

Yesterday’s Top Army Psychiatrist Ponders Today’s Mental-Health Army Ills

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I drove home past the now-shuttered Walter Reed Hospital last night. The cherry trees are blooming pink within the compound, and the hospital where I spent so much of my life is visible through the bars and closed gates. I graduated four times on the wide lawn: from psychiatric internship, residency, and forensic and disaster fellowships. Unabashedly, I love the hospital and its hallowed grounds, between 16th Street and Georgia Avenue, well north of the capital’s monumental core that most tourists come to see.

The art deco fountain with the four penguins is still blue and beautiful, but with no water running. Walter Reed closed last summer, because of BRAC (Base Re-alignment and Closure). Thankfully, I retired from the Army a few months before the closing. But the troubles swirling around the Army’s mental-health community cause me great pain.

Now allegations of improper diagnosis related to PTSD at Madigan Army Medical Center, on Ft. Joint Base Lewis McCord have the headlines. Many of the psychiatrists discussed in the scandal trained there with me. There are numerous ongoing investigations, so I will not opine on the situation at Ft Lewis.

Eclipsing those news reports is the Afghan massacre by an Army Soldier.  His mental state is the main subject. Scrutiny will focus on the policies that the Army, and military psychiatry, had about screening and treatment in the combat zone.

And of course it comes after the “Walter Reed scandal,” — really an inadequate-housing problem — the shooting at a psychiatric clinic at Camp Liberty in Iraq, and the Fort Hood shooting by an Army psychiatrist, who shot up the Combat Stress Control unit he was supposed to deploy with.

So much violence. I fear the ongoing scapegoating of my friends, good and responsible physicians. Ok, clearly I am biased, but I know these folks to be caring Army doctors, who have served in the theater of war themselves. They have been shot at, been wounded, and killed themselves.

But there seems to be an incoming tide of “blame the doctors.”

Maybe Major Walter Reed would have rolled over in his grave. How could Army medicine be so tarnished?

But the folks who go into Army, or military, medicine, give all they can. They have also been in combat, picked up body parts, had marriages crumble, and developed their own cases of PTSD.

I would like to offer one thought: 10 years of beastly conflict has scarred all of us. There are no good and bad guys – just a lot of fallout from this long and difficult conflict. Most of us are doing the best we can.

We should stop pointing fingers, and instead work together. After all, there is plenty to tend to among the tired medical staff, the battle-scarred service members and veterans, and, of course, the Iraqi and Afghani civilians who have suffered so much.

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