Mentally Ill Veterans Sent Back To War
Boston Channel
November 11, 2007

BOSTON -- Thousands of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

But Team 5 Investigates has uncovered that case after case, the military is violating its own policy and shipping them back to the front lines before they are well.

At just 25 years old, Damian Fernandez has already witnessed horrific human suffering.

"Everyday, for 365 days, they were under attack there," said his mother Mary Jane Fernandez. "Bombings and landmines were in the street and he saw his fellow soldiers killed."

The young father from Waterbury, Conn., came back a different man. Doctors classified him as 70 percent disabled from post-traumatic stress disorder. Still the order came to redeploy.

"All day long he was just getting more and more agitated until he said he was going to kill himself rather than go back," his mother said.

Russell Anderson, 50 percent disabled by PTSD, chose to go back to the front lines. And the Army allowed it.

"I don't believe in another circumstance with the war, that Russell would be redeployed with his PTSD," his girlfriend Catherine Colone said. "But in this war, there just aren't enough soldiers."

One day after Michael DeVlieger was released from an Army hospital in Kentucky for acute stress disorder, he got the redeployment order. Now he's on the front lines.

"The closer that it got, he kept saying 'Mom I'm going to die, I'm not coming back this time. I'm feeling it, I'm dreaming it. I'm not coming back,'" said Sue DeVlieger, his mother.

Critics say there's a contradiction between military policy and its practices. The official policy of the Department of Defense states that soldiers with serious psychiatric problems could only be sent back to the war zone if they were stable for at least three months.

But the national guard told Team 5 its policy "is based on the severity of their PTSD diagnosis...that may limit their ability to deploy."

The Army says it's "individualized" and that they "do not want to stigmatize the soldiers by saying they cannot deploy with their unit because they have symptoms."

"They should be given the time to heal, make sure that they can handle themselves over there so that we are sending an able Army ," said DeVlieger. "So I am extremely disappointed in the Army because they don't care about our men and women that they are sending over. They are just worrying about the numbers. And to me, that's just atrocious."

Dr. Judith Herman is a psychiatrist who specializes in PTSD. She said she does not think it is safe to send a mentally ill soldier back to war.

"Personally I'm appalled by the practice," Herman said. "I don't think it's safe for the individual soldier. I don't think it's safe for his unit either to send someone who is so impaired back into a situation of danger."

Sen. John Kerry, himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, agrees.

"Obviously it's unacceptable," Kerry said. "A huge number of these troops are returning with PTSD and we need to treat it."

Those who have worked with veterans for decades say a big problem is that the Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs don't share crucial medical information.

"There are veterans diagnosed with PTSD and the Department of Veteran Affairs knows. But VA doesn't share that information with the Department of Defense," said Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense. "So those soldiers are sent back. It also works the other way. There are soldiers diagnosed by the Department of Defense and can't get help from the VA, so the system is broken in both directions."

Fernandez's mother fought tirelessly to keep her son at home. Two years later the decorated soldier is still struggling to put his life together again.

DeVlieger's mother couldn't keep her son home. But she's determined that this not happen to another family.

"I think if America knew what was DeVlieger said. "I think there would be enough people saying no."

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