Families question whether Army is missing PTSD cases

Families question whether Army is missing PTSD cases

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FORT CAMPBELL, KY (WSMV) -

Suicide in the military has been described as an epidemic in recent years, but a Channel 4 I-Team investigation raises questions about a common explanation for the problem: post-traumatic stress disorder following combat.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Channel 4 I-Team obtained 17 suicide investigations completed by the Army to look into whether each Fort Campbell soldier died in the line of duty. The 17 soldiers died in 2011 and 2012. The Channel 4 I-Team's review found that none of the investigative files indicated any of the soldiers were diagnosed with PTSD before their deaths.

The Channel 4 I-Team and The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper worked together to attempt to reach family members of each of the 17 soldiers and agreed not to release names without the family's blessing.

The I-Team's review of the cases found no indication of PTSD in 12 of the suicides, in either the investigative files or the family's accounts. At least three of the soldiers never deployed, according to the investigative files. But the five other families raised questions, either to Army investigators or reporters, asking whether the military missed warning signs of PTSD.

"I did not recognize my brother. I did not recognize the person that he was," said Keyanna Rawls, whose brother, Rico Rawls, died by suicide in 2012 after investigators say he killed his wife Jessica Rawls. "My thing is: It was obvious. Why didn't the Army think it was obvious?"

Jessica Rawls was also a soldier. Her mother, Dawn Sult-Williams, told The Leaf-Chronicle she doesn't blame Rico Rawls for what happened, she blames PTSD. She said her daughter tried in vain to get help from the Army for what she suspected to be PTSD after her husband's returns from two deployments in Iraq.

"No one understands why I'm not mad. He was a different person," Sult-Williams told The Leaf-Chronicle. "I don't believe when he did this it was him ... I know when he deployed, things changed. He changed, and that was the root cause of this. Neither of their deaths would've happened if someone would have paid attention. I feel like we all lost Jessica and Rico."

The Army's investigator tells a different story, concluding, "There is no documentation or testimony from SPC Rawls' unit members or associated care providers to indicate that he was suffering from service-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Concerns expressed by Mrs. Rawls that SPC Rawls seemed different around her and their daughter following his 2010 deployment, absent any other PTSD indicators, can be attributed to turbulence experienced in the relationship during deployment."

Some of the Army investigations referenced diagnoses of other mental illnesses but ruled out PTSD.

Fort Campbell would not comment about specific cases, but Blanchfield Army Community Hospital's chief of Adult Behavioral Health told Channel 4 it's not necessarily true that when a soldier who served in combat dies by suicide that there is a link to PTSD.

"There are cases where the main situation tends to be best labeled with a different label, like depression," said Maj. Joe Wise.

Wise said treatment of PTSD and other mental health issues is a major priority for the Army and Fort Campbell.

"Within military healthcare, we provide annual, pre and post-deployment and other periodic assessments," Wise said in a statement to The Leaf-Chronicle. "We do know that some soldiers who suffer with behavioral health conditions, including PTSD, remain reluctant to seek help. We can only say that the medical team is there to meet with, assess and treat any patient who is dealing with these conditions."

Alicia McCoy said she watched her husband, Sgt. Brandon McCoy, tell his military doctors nothing was wrong before his suicide in 2012. The investigation of his death notes that he was screened for PTSD four times and each was negative, but his wife believes he came home from war haunted by what he saw.

"I sat there with my husband and the doctor asked him, 'Are you thinking of committing suicide?' [He answered] 'No,'" Alicia McCoy said. "'Are you thinking of hurting anybody else?' 'No sir.' I said, 'Are you kidding me? That's all you're gonna ask him?'"

The Channel 4 I-Team's interviews seemed to show a disconnect between the symptoms families believe they are seeing and the diagnoses military doctors are making.

Melissa Bourgeois, whose husband is an active soldier at Fort Campbell, says his diagnosis of PTSD was changed by a military doctor.

She shared his medical records with Channel 4. They show her husband had numerous traumatic experiences at war, including direct fire and witnessing death. He had trouble sleeping, thoughts of harming himself and once destroyed a laundry room in anger.

The medical records also show a Fort Campbell doctor changed the soldier's PTSD diagnosis to adjustment disorder, saying there is "little supporting clinical evidence" of post-traumatic stress.

Bourgeois said she told the doctor she disagrees with that finding.

"[I told him] 'You are not only putting him at risk, but you are putting me and my children at risk.' He said, 'Ma'am, I don't feel that way. I just don't think he has PTSD.'"

Wise, while declining to speak about specific cases, told the Channel 4 I-Team there are specific criteria that need to be met for a doctor to make a diagnosis of PTSD. First, the patient must experience some sort of trauma. The patient then shows signs they are "re-experiencing" the trauma, usually in the form of nightmares or flashbacks. Third, the patient must show signs of "increased arousal" such as being easily startled, irritable or hyper-vigilant. People diagnosed with PTSD also show signs they are avoiding thinking about the traumatic event. Finally, Wise said, there should be symptoms of detachment or decreased mood.

Suicide prevention advocates say soldiers often hide symptoms of PTSD and other mental health issues from the military, which can prevent diagnosis.

"The culture's always going to be that you're 10 feet tall and bulletproof," said Zachary Bell, a former Marine and outreach specialist with the organization Not Alone. "To say that you have flaws or to say that you have a weakness goes against the whole thing you're taught to do and to be."

Bell said he was diagnosed with PTSD after returning from combat and knows many other veterans who have also been diagnosed with PTSD. He helps counsel other combat veterans through Not Alone, which provides soldiers and their families with the opportunity to speak with clinicians outside of a military setting.

"There's never the fear that maybe my command will find out about this, maybe someone in my unit will find out about this," Bell said. "Once that's removed, honesty breaks out and that's when the healing starts."

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