Warner tells the story of Andrew Pogany, a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq who began to hallucinate and have panic attacks in 2003 after witnessing the mutilated body of an Iraqi insurgent. Rather than treat their soldier for mental trauma or PTSD, the military took the logical step of charging Pogany for the crime of “cowardice,” a crime that’s punishable by death.
The charges were eventually dropped after it came to light that an army administered anti-malarial drug — Lariam — was causing severe mental side-effects in other soldiers who had received it. As a result of the publicity, other soldiers suffering from PTSD began to contact Pogany, and he’s helped them navigate the Army’s bureaucracy in order to receive the benefits they deserve.
While Pogany’s case was unique because of the absurd cowardice charge, the more troubling aspect of this story is the fact that thousands of other soldiers suffering from similar symptoms are routinely denied any medical or retirement benefits because the Dept. of Defense deems their psychological issues to be unrelated to combat, thus making them ineligible for treatment.
It’s widely acknowledged that U.S. service members put their bodies in harm’s way, but advances in technology mean that more of them are surviving from their injuries, and in Iraq and Afghanistan those injuries are often mental as well as physical. But while it’s hard for the Army to ignore a missing limb, it’s much easier for them use mental illness as grounds for dismissal rather than recognize it as a direct consequence of a soldier’s military service. And it isn’t just a matter of the military needing to catch-up to current reality. As Salon reported earlier this year, the Army is well aware of these issues and has actively encouraged its doctors to downplay PTSD and related illnesses.
Regardless of what the President ultimately decides on Afghanistan, Warner’s piece is a reminder that even if every single troop was to come home tomorrow, the mental effects of these wars on our service members won’t just magically go away. The sights, sounds and smells will live with them for the rest of their lives, and for military officials to deny that is shameful.
I highly encourage everyone to read the full story here and to tune in for tomorrow’s chat at 3:30pm EDT / 12:30pm PDT. Warner and Westword editor Patricia Calhoun will both be on hand to discuss the work that took place behind the scenes and to answer questions from the public.