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Behind the Afghan Massacre: Accused Soldier Suffered Brain Injury After Multiple Deployments in Iraq

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U.S. lawmakers want the Pentagon to explain why the soldier accused in the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers was sent back into combat after suffering a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. We look at whether soldiers are receiving the mental health treatment they need with Kevin Baker, an Iraq War veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from the same base as the Afghan shooting suspect, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “It’s not an isolated incident. It’s not unique to Fort Lewis. This is a military-wide epidemic,” Baker says. “The military is incapable of helping its servicemembers. These are young men and women from working families that join the military and put their lives on the line. And when they come home, they’re not being treated properly.” We also speak with ProPublica’s Joaquin Sapien, co-author of an investigative series called “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, U.S. lawmakers began pressing the Pentagon to explain why the soldier accused in the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers was sent back into combat after he suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. Congress Member Bill Pascrell, founder of a U.S. congressional task force on brain injuries, wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to request details of the accused soldier’s injury, diagnosis, and when and how he was returned to combat duty.

A U.S. official told Reuters that the staff sergeant had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a vehicle rollover in 2010 in Iraq and was treated and returned to duty. He served four terms of duty. The soldier had previously served three tours of duty in Iraq before deploying to Afghanistan, raising questions of U.S. troops being stretched too thin for too long at too high a cost. Experts caution the risk of mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety-related disorders, is generally higher during subsequent deployments than during a soldier’s first tour of duty.

A documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder called Wartorn: 1861-2010 chronicles the lingering effects of war on military veterans throughout American history.

SGT. MAX HARRIS: It’s a particularly disturbing feeling, feeling someone’s heart beating from inside their body. I still wake up with horrible nightmares from that sometimes, crying and scrubbing my hands, trying to get blood that’s not there off.

SPC. ELIZABETH HALL: I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t—I don’t want to move. I just want to sit in a corner and just be a vegetable.

SPC. JAMESON WEATHERFORD: When I came back, it was paranoia. A lot of paranoia, emotional detachment. You know, my spouse and I have basically grown apart.

STAFF SGT. KATISHA SMITTICK: Some things you just don’t want to remember. You block them out. And I’ve been blocking it for so long.

SGT. JEFFREY BROWN: I couldn’t pinpoint a direct day where it would be like, “Oh, yeah, that happened, and that’s what caused it.” I couldn’t do it. I just know that it’s just—it’s not the same anymore.

SGT. MARK JOLLY: Never in a million years did I ever think that I would lose my mind.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from the film Wartorn, co-directed by Jon Alpert and as well as Matthew O’Neill.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Times reported earlier this month that 285 patients at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state had their PTSD diagnoses inexplicably reversed by a forensic psychiatric screening team. The reversals are now under investigation due to concerns they were partly motivated by a desire to avoid paying those who qualify for medical benefits.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Los Angeles, Kevin Baker is with us. He’s an Iraq War veteran who has struggled with PTSD. He’s also an organizer with March Forward! Here in New York City, we’re joined by Joaquin Sapien, a reporter at ProPublica. He has co-authored a series of articles called “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded”

Kevin and Joaquin, welcome to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Kevin. Let’s start by talking about this base, Fort Lewis-McChord. Kevin, can you talk about the base where this soldier, whose name we still don’t know, 38-year-old soldier in Afghanistan, originally came from?

KEVIN BAKER: Yeah. So Fort Lewis has been under a lot of, rightfully so, public scrutiny, because of the PTSD, and a lot of the media—what’s going on with the kill team and this soldier that, you know, just butchered these 16 innocent Afghans. I think something that should be noted is that it’s not an isolated incident. It’s not unique to Fort Lewis. This is a military-wide epidemic. A lot of these soldiers that have gone on multiple deployments have deployed out of other places. And I think that a lot of the issue that is revolving around Fort Lewis is just because of, you know, the high traffic rate of deployments there. We know that, after those 285 cases are being reviewed for PTSD misdiagnosis, that Colonel Homas, the head of—director at Madigan, has been relieved, along with two other doctors. And an investigation has been launched into really how the Army has been conducting itself in regards to soldiers seeking help and looking for help in dealing with PTSD.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were stationed at Fort Lewis. The Madigan Army Medical Center, is this a place where you also were treated? Can you tell us a little about your own background, how you ended up in Iraq, and then how you came to end up speaking out, and particularly around people who are suffering with PTSD?

KEVIN BAKER: Yeah, absolutely. I deployed to Iraq in 2005, 2006, and then 2007, 2008. My second deployment was an infrantryman. And, you know, I really believed in my heart that we were there to liberate the people of Iraq from, you know, this brutal tyrant and to spread democracy. In my second deployment, that really became clear that that’s not what was going on, and it didn’t really resonate with me until about a month after we returned from Iraq. There was a situation specifically that really bothers me and kind of is what really polarized me around the antiwar movement, and that was when we were tasked with medically evacuating a mother and her child out of—after an air strike hit a house, and it collapsed the building. And we had this child that ended up dying inside of our vehicle. So he was maybe six years old, taking the last breaths of his life, that were lived under a brutal occupation, and just feeling completely helpless to not—to not do what I thought we were there to do, that was to help this child.

And when we came back from Iraq, more and more servicemembers began asking questions. What was our role there? Why were we there? I think that I know more people that have either attempted to commit suicide or have committed suicide than died in combat. That’s a failure on the military’s behalf, especially at Fort Lewis-McChord. We know that—when I went through the medical discharge process, it takes about one year after a doctor submits the paperwork. So you have a huge epidemic within the military. The Army Times has reported that 750 servicemembers—that’s from all wars—that are still currently alive, attempt to take their lives every month at a rate of 18 every day. These numbers don’t lie. That’s the Army Times that’s reporting this. This is an epidemic within the military. And the military is incapable of helping its servicemembers. You know, these are young men and women from working families that join the military and put their lives on the line. And when they come home, they’re not being treated properly. So it really begs to highlight a question, that if the military is incapable of helping its own servicemembers, then why would we believe that its prime mission is to liberate other countries? I think it’s a very important issue that must be asked.

And as far as helping other servicemembers with PTSD, that’s what March Forward!, our organization, does do, is we want to reach out to these soldiers that feel like they’re drowning in the sea of despotism and sadness and show them that they don’t have to feel that way, that there is a better way. And we want to give them an alternative route to leave the military. And we’ve been successful with that. If we can look at one case, Danny Birmingham, for example, who deployed to Iraq, came back, he filed a conscientious objector packet. We helped facilitate his transition out of the Army. He’s also a member of our organization. And this is, as far as we’re concerned, as far as we know, the first time in this decade-long brutal occupation and war that anybody has been able to file a conscientious objector status on the grounds of morality. And what this does do is it shows servicemembers that do feel lost and alone that there is a positive way out, there is another way. And we want to provide that for them.

AMY GOODMAN: You refused to deploy again, Kevin?

KEVIN BAKER: Correct. I was supposed to deploy in 2009, 2010. I went to the doctor’s office. At first I was seeing a psychologist for about a year after my second deployment. And their attempt was to adjust me with adjustment disorder. This is after, you know, six years in the military. I’ve never once been in trouble. And all of a sudden, it was an adjustment disorder. And they—what they did is they put me on a 90-day temporary profile, after I told them I wouldn’t go back to Iraq. And our brigade commander at the time—and this is—this goes along with what just happened to that staff sergeant who was deployed after possibly being diagnosed with TBI—is there is multiple soldiers that were given non-deployable profiles. The unit deployed. And to maintain logistic security in Iraq, they have to have a specific number. When the unit deployed, they counted all of us as deploying with the unit. They arrived down range, which is a term used for in theater in Iraq, and there was a huge chunk of people missing. So, the brigade commander—the officer’s response was to attempt to override multiple soldiers’ medical profiles that were given by psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors, that were trying to seek legitimate help. This is consistent with the behavior with the officer corps in the military not taking the pleas of soldiers seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Kevin Baker in Los Angeles now. He’s an Iraq War vet, refused to redeploy, is part of the group March Forward!, and was stationed at Fort Lewis-McChord, where this 38-year-old soldier was stationed, as well, in Washington state, who is now on his fourth tour of duty, in Afghanistan. Joaquin Sapien, you did this series of pieces called “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded.” What did you find? What is the military doing?

JOAQUIN SAPIEN: Well, the focus of my reporting was on how the military assesses soldiers for whether or not they have suffered a brain injury during their deployment. And what we found was that there were significant problems with a computerized test that they give to all the soldiers to kind of get a baseline of their cognitive functioning. As it turns out, the test that they use, which is called the ANAM, Automated Neuropsychological Assessment Metrics, was not actually designed to detect brain injuries and was never really scientifically proven to diagnose these kinds of brain injuries. It’s more of a performance-based test. The idea was that you would give it to someone like an astronaut or some high-level elite soldier to see whether they had the cognitive ability to operate a very sophisticated piece of equipment. And then, after their deployment, they’re supposed to take the test again to see whether or not their cognitive function has decreased. The problem is that most soldiers don’t take the test again. The military just doesn’t give it, because they don’t have the confidence that the first baseline actually means anything, to begin with. And we uncovered that the reason why this particular test was selected is because people who had a stake in it, a professional or even a financial stake in it, were involved in selecting it. And so, there is a—you know, there’s a lot of nepotism involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that. I mean, it’s amazing the way you lay this out. The people pushing this are the ones who are financially benefiting from this, and the Pentagon has been giving millions of dollars to this project.

JOAQUIN SAPIEN: Well, they spent about $42 million on this particular test, and they’ve given it to over a million soldiers since 2008. And the people who were involved had been for some time. I mean, before—around the time of the Gulf War is when this thing really started to come to fruition. And there was a group of researchers in the military who had been pushing for this for a long time, and some of which had moved on to Oklahoma University and to other locations. And what—the long story short is that they, sort of through a chain of contractors and subcontractors, developed a way in which they would administer this test to many, many soldiers, and the money that goes from one place or another kind of moves in this circle, going from—directly from the people who selected it to those who, you know, made it. So—and there are significant problems with it that is now under investigation by Congress.

And so, getting back to the point in hand, frankly, we don’t know whether or not this particular soldier has indeed suffered a brain injury. What we’ve seen are unnamed sources in various news media saying that that is a possibility. And it’s absolutely a possibility. I mean, a very large number of soldiers report having these injuries. This person had been—this is his fourth deployment. And, you know, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 soldiers have reported having these kinds of injuries.

But the second thing to consider is also whether this kind of injury can make someone more prone to the sort of violent tendencies that this person demonstrated. Right now, the state of the science does not necessarily prove that. There is a small but growing body of studies that suggest that maybe with damage to a certain part of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex, which is where our sort of behavioral inhibitors are located within the brain, then you might make sort of more rash decisions.

So, it remains to be seen whether, A, this person did absolutely suffer brain injury, and B, whether that’s responsible for his behavior. If he did suffer a brain injury and the military somehow didn’t catch it and deployed this person again, then I think that that gets right back to the subject of our reporting, which shows that there were major problems in how the military assesses these soldiers and how they treat them and whether or not they decide that they should—they are actually equipped to redeploy.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to give the last word to Kevin Baker. The kill team also came from Fort Lewis-McChord, where you were stationed, this group of men in Afghanistan who were gathering body parts for trophies, like fingers and other body parts. It’s also a place of an extremely high suicide rate. Did what happened with the kill team change the atmosphere or how Fort Lewis-McChord, the joint base, dealt with their soldiers?

KEVIN BAKER: No, I don’t think it did at all. I think that when these situations come up, the military’s response is to immediately wage a PR campaign that really does nothing except for confuses the general public into thinking that they’ve done something to catch these soldiers before they deploy.

I think that the point behind what’s going on at Fort Lewis is that this 10-year brutal occupation—soldiers going on multiple deployments, the military being incapable of helping them—is creating these situations, that all of these horrible atrocities that are happening, you know, are a result of this occupation, where soldiers cannot explain why they’re being constantly deployed, they can’t find help when they get back, the internal racist mechanism within the U.S. military that promotes the idea to dehumanize people that are in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think it’s something that has to end.

And it has to end by public support and internal pressure from soldiers, servicemembers and their families. The only reason that there is an investigation launched into Fort Lewis is because some of the historical work that we’ve done on that base from all the way back from 2009. And I think that the military is not going to wake up one day and say that “We feel it’s necessary to help our soldiers.” The only way that’s going to happen is servicemembers, vets, family members, organizers and loved ones getting together and demanding change.

I think it’s absolutely tragic every time a servicemember takes their life. It’s tragic what happened in Afghanistan. The 10-year occupation is tragic. The only way to begin real change is an immediate withdrawal out of Afghanistan. And I think that, just to highlight this, If we look at—if a soldier is wounded on a battlefield in combat, and they’re bleeding to death, and an officer orders that person to not receive medical attention, costing that servicemember their life, that officer would be found guilty of dereliction of duty and possibly murder. But when that happens in the U.S., when that happens for soldiers that are going to seek help, and officers are ordering not a clear diagnosis for PTSD and essentially denying them that metaphoric tourniquet, real psychological help, and the soldier ends up suffering internally to the point of taking their own life or somebody else’s life, that these officers and this military and the Pentagon has to be held responsible for these atrocities. It’s not a bottom-to-top issue; it’s a top-to-bottom issue.

And if people want to get involved, at our website we have a petition signed up for people to check out. It’s at Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, thanks very much for being with us. Kevin Baker is an Iraq War vet who was stationed at Fort Lewis-McChord, where the soldier was stationed who committed the massacre in Afghanistan, the killing of 16 Afghans. Joaquin Sapien, thank you very much for being with us, of ProPublica. We will link to his series called “Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the race for what’s left, the global scramble for the world’s last resources. Stay with us. We’ll be back in 15 seconds.

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Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded–ProPublica’s Joaquin Sapien

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