The Senate Armed Services Committee hearings Wednesday on the rising suicide rate among U.S. ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed some frightening new data, but did little to investigate the underlying causes of what is emerging as one of the darkest, most disturbing legacies of the wars.
Last year the Army had its highest suicide rate on record -- 140 soldiers. But new data from the Army on Wednesday showed the number jumping even higher. Forty-eight soldiers have already killed themselves so far this year. If that rate keeps up, nearly 225 Army soldiers will be dead by their own hand by the end of 2009.
While we reflect on what demons these soldiers may have been fighting, note how the concept of the volunteer army becomes increasingly Orwellian.
When the "Arctic Warriors" Stryker Brigade left for Iraq from nearby Fort Wainwright late last year, commanders told soldiers who were suffering medical problems that they would also go to war.
Spc. Mark Oldham was on a plane to Iraq by Dec. 5 despite being declared unfit because he passes out during training and requires a 30-day heart-monitor exam, his medical records show.
Sgt. Jesse McElroy, a combat veteran who had shoulder surgery in September and could barely move his arm, according to his medical records, was told to deploy or face charges for malingering.
Chief Warrant Officer Adisa "A.J." Aiyetoro, a 19-year veteran who is stricken with active tuberculosis and unable to wear body armor because of back injuries, according to medical and court records, refused to go. "I'm not getting on that plane," he says. His court-martial on charges of disobeying an order and missing a deployment is scheduled for Monday.
"The only reason that I'm being deployed is they want (greater) numbers" of troops in the field, Oldham said before leaving. He is assigned to communications.
A recent Army inspector general's report says the process for deciding a soldier's fitness for combat is so confusing that it increases the chance of sending ailing troops to war.
At Fort Wainwright, 80 soldiers with health issues were left behind when the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team deployed in September, says Lt. Col. Jonathan Allen, an Army spokesman.
Twenty-three were later brought to Iraq to help "maintain (the brigade's) personnel strength" — but only after their health improved, he says. Oldham and McElroy were among those left behind. Oldham was among those later deployed.
Army Col. Ronald Stephens, commander of Bassett Army Community Hospital at Fort Wainwright, says his doctors work well with commanders and follow all fitness guidelines.
Several soldiers caught in the process and willing to speak out tell a different story. They describe a climate where commanders constantly pressure soldiers with health issues to deploy, even when their medical records — which they provided — show physical problems.
In response, a group of soldiers that includes McElroy plans to meet Monday at the Alaska Peace Center here to gather signatures for a petition to mail to members of Congress. The petition says, "As the shortage of troops has become more and more difficult to overcome, our commanders have become more and more aggressive in deploying soldiers with injuries and illnesses."
"What we're trying to do is just get our stories heard," says Sgt. Stephen Scroggs, who tracks the progress of ailing soldiers left behind for the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment. He is part of the rear detachment and is involved in the petition drive. "A lot of soldiers are suffering, I just don't want them to suffer anymore."
Allen says all medical cases were thoroughly vetted and when doctors determined that soldiers met deployment health criteria, they were deployed. Those with persistent issues stayed home, he says.
Aiyetoro began developing chronic, debilitating back pain after an earlier combat deployment. He is an armament maintenance technician with the 25th Brigade Support Battalion.
Medical records show that Army orthopedic surgeon Nick Sexton classified him as non-deployable Aug. 25. Sexton wrote that Aiyetoro is unable to wear his body armor and recommended a medical review that could lead to a medical discharge.
Central Command specifically forbids a solder to deploy if body armor cannot be worn: "In general, individuals should not deploy . . . (with) conditions which prevent the wear of personal protective equipment, including . . . body armor."
A revised evaluation issued for Aiyetoro a few days later by another doctor found that he could wear body armor but "only during mission-essential movements."
The Army did not make Sexton available for an interview. Stephens, the hospital commander, declined to discuss Aiyetoro's case despite a waiver Aiyetoro signed allowing Stephens to do so. Stephens said in situation's like Aiyetoro's, it is possible for an initial medical opinion to later be overruled.
Since then, doctors have again changed Aiyetoro's medical status. In February, doctors concluded that Aiyetoro needed further tests on his back to determine the extent of injuries and he needs additional tests to determine whether his tuberculosis is active, according to court records.
Aiyetoro says commanders cared more about filling their ranks than about him getting better when they ordered him to deploy in September. They made him feel like a malingerer for complaining about his back pain, he says, and "they pretty much classified me as a dirt bag."
"They were not intending on getting me better (as much as) getting me on that plane," says Aiyetoro, 36, married and the father of four.
The command offered to allow him to resign. Aiyetoro chose a court-martial instead, the trial is slated for Monday at Fort Richardson, outside Anchorage. "If I walk right now, it's as if I never served in the military," he says, explaining that he would lose benefits if he resigned.
McElroy says he also felt pressured by commanders. A veteran of a previous tour in Iraq, McElroy aggravated a shoulder injury in 2006 when his Stryker vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.
An initial surgery after his return from combat failed to correct the damage, according to his records, and he underwent another operation last September. His surgeon, Gregory Komenda, wrote in a December report that McElroy "should be considered unable to perform his duties." Military doctors reached the same conclusion with one, Mark Clifford, writing in a January report, "Soldier is unable to perform Infantry tasks."
Yet McElroy's immediate commander continued to tell him he would deploy, first saying the second surgery should be delayed and then saying McElroy would leave for Iraq after a 30-day, post-operative convalescence, McElroy says.
After months of haggling, records show, McElroy was finally slated for a medical review and a possible discharge for health reasons. McElroy says he was accused of malingering and being a "sorry excuse for a non-commissioned officer," because of his health issues.
In December, he says, he was told that if he was not in Iraq, he would be charged with malingering. The charges never came, and at the urging of Army doctors, McElroy was eventually slated for a medical board review that could lead to a medical discharge.
"I signed up. . . knowing that at some point I would be sent into combat. I have risked my life to defend this country," McElroy says, adding that he feels "belittled, humiliated, threatened, angry, (in) mental shock."
Allen says that soldiers have the right to complain to rear detachment commanders about any mistreatment and that no complaints were made in McElroy's case. "It is the Army's long-standing policy to treat all soldiers with dignity and respect," he says.