09.09.11

Army Base on the Brink

At an Army base near Seattle, soldiers are committing suicide, murdering their families—and in one case, waterboarding their own kids. Winston Ross reports from a base on the brink.

Back when Jonathon Gilbert was still in middle school, he attended his cousin’s graduation ceremony from the U.S. Army’s basic training, watching men in neatly pressed uniforms marching, saluting one another, and smiling.

“That was it for him,” Gilbert’s mother, Karrie Champion, tells The Daily Beast. “He knew what he wanted to do. He enlisted before he was out of high school.”

The boy had no idea what he was getting into—that he’d wind up in Iraq, driving a Stryker, watching the unit in the caravan ahead of him roll off a bridge and land upside down. Two soldiers were killed, one of them decapitated. Nineteen-year-old Jonathan helped clean up the body parts.

This event and his upcoming redeployment, Gilbert’s mom believes, is what led her son to kill himself on July 28 at the age of 21, forcing a pistol to his head and pulling the trigger after a violent struggle with a fellow soldier who apparently tried to stop him. It was the 11th “suspicious death” (the Army has yet to officially declare any of them suicides) of a soldier stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord this year. Assuming they’re all ruled suicides, that tops the previous record set the year before, of nine. The year before that, there were nine suicides, too.

Champion, along with a growing legion of modern-day war veterans and their families, says it’s long past time the Army took notice of a tragic, preventable epidemic—one that seems especially acute at Lewis-McChord.

The base, an hour or so south of Seattle, was named by the government-owned, independent news source Stars and Stripes last year as the most troubled in the military, thanks to an “incredible” number of incidents rooted in post-traumatic stress disorder, says Joseph Carter, a former Army sergeant with two Iraq tours under his belt.

The jarring incidents include one of the soldiers Carter served with: Sheldon Plummer, sentenced to 14 years in prison last August for murdering his wife and stuffing her body into a storage crate after his return from a third deployment in Iraq. Another incident involved an Iraq and Afghanistan soldier who allegedly set fire to his wife, and yet another soldier was convicted of waterboarding his own daughter because she didn’t know her ABCs. The Afghan kill team, which came to symbolize wanton military violence after a three-month killing spree perpetrated against innocent Afghan civilians, was from Lewis-McChord too.

But what Champion and Carter are focused on now are all those presumed suicides—among them, the recent death of an Army ranger whose wife says he killed himself to avoid a ninth deployment.

“There’s definitely something going on here at Lewis-McChord that’s not being taken care of,” Carter said.

It’s not just at this one base. Military suicides are up nationwide, according to an Army report released last month that showed more soldiers took their lives in the month of July than in any month over the prior two years. This came on the heels of a small decline in active-duty suicides in 2010, the first drop since 2005. As of the report’s publishing, the Army was investigating 98 potential suicides among active-duty soldiers this year alone, along with 53 potential suicides for soldiers in the Reserves. In 2010, Army suicides among active-duty Reserve and National Guard soldiers increased to 301, from 242 the year before.

Carter has no doubt about the reason for the sad uptick in self-inflicted death, which is why he has joined the ranks of Coffee Strong, a veterans-backed coffee house whose founders use it to work against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide information about resources to vets and active-duty soldiers alike. Carter himself was there for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he was angered to learn that the supposed reason for this war—that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—was a manufactured one.

“There’s definitely something going on here at Lewis-McChord that’s not being taken care of.”

But he did a second tour anyway, for the same reasons so many soldiers go back to the fighting even if they don’t want to: the terms of their service require it, obtaining “conscientious objector” status is difficult and stigmatizing even to attempt, and because there’s an incredible amount of peer pressure among fellow soldiers to stand with them, to stay in the fight.

“You need to man up,” is how Carter puts it. “Don’t be a coward.”

It was this kind of pressure that got to Gilbert, says his mother. After what he saw in Afghanistan, he made it clear to everyone around him that he didn’t want to go back. He always had a quick temper, but when he got back from the war, with 90 percent of the hearing in his left ear gone, he was a changed person, she says.

“Somebody would cut him off on the freeway and he would tailgate them; he’d just as soon beat the crap out of them,” says Champion. “We’d be at a Walmart, grocery shopping, and he’d see someone wearing a turban. He’d just stare them down.” She says he told her that he hated the people over there, and the sand and the heat, and that “these people don’t care what we’re doing anyway.” But she now knows that he was deeply afraid. He just couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.

On July 28, after a company picnic, Gilbert came back to his apartment with his new wife, Ashley, and a couple of friends, all of whom had been drinking, “probably heavily,” as an active-duty soldier at home is wont to do. At one point, Champion says, Ashley and one of Gilbert’s friends were alone in a bedroom for a few moments, enough for her son to “flip,” hand back his wedding ring, to say something along the lines of “I guess I’m not good enough for you,” and then to storm into his room, find his handgun, and do himself in.

“Ashley told me she was holding him, screaming at him not to leave,” says Champion. She blames the Army for what happened. When a soldier returns home from war, they’re debriefed, but what that amounts to is “a bunch of stupid questions about whether their head is OK.” Because nobody wants to be “ridiculed” for admitting fear or stress or anything else that might be perceived as a weakness, soldiers lie, and the Army hands over a pamphlet with information about where to find help if needed.

But it’s not enough, as is clearly evidenced by the spike in suicides. Army officials say they get that, that they’re investigating the current “suspicious deaths” and working to determine the root cause, be it multiple deployments, financial problems, or personal issues, said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, a Lewis-McChord spokesman.

Dangerfield was careful to point out that suicide can have any number of causes, though he acknowledged that time in war can certainly be one of them. He says he can’t speak to the repeated deployments Army soldiers are facing because that’s policy set at a national level, but that at Lewis-McChord, there are 23 different programs on the base to help soldiers deal with mental health issues. “We do take suicides very seriously,” says Dangerfield.

Capt. Keith Kosik, spokesman for the Washington National Guard, also argued that repeated deployments may not necessarily be the cause. “Suicide can be a manifestation of relationship problems, unemployment, any number of things that affect a soldier outside their service in the National Guard. There’s a natural tendency to link deployment and operations tempo to suicide, but what we’ve found is there are often as many people attempting to or committing suicide who haven’t deployed as those who have.”

Whatever the reason, whatever the resources being deployed to help, it’s not working, says Carter at Coffee Strong. The shop opened in 2008 next to a Subway sandwich shop, just down the road from one of the entrances to Lewis-McChord. Inside, besides the coffee (free for enlisted soldiers) and assorted pastries, are big blue binders with information about how to access the resources available to active-duty soldiers and veterans, an events calendar listing upcoming presentations, and meetings of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. The reading library includes such titles as The Bush Agenda and Behind the War on Terror. There’s free Internet access and a foosball table for some healthy stress relief.

Coffee Strong Director of Operations Lisa Hubert just had a “planning meeting” with Ashley Joppa-Hagemann, widow of Staff Sgt. Jared Hagemann, the 25-year-old soldier who killed himself as his ninth deployment approached.

Hagemann shot himself June 28 in a training area on the base after his fellow Army Rangers pressured him to stay in the military despite his strong desire to get out, Joppa-Hagemann said in an interview with the Associated Press. After each tour, she said, he came back more disturbed, aggressive and at times violent.

In 2009, Hagemann spent four days in the Madigan Army Medical Center for mental health care services, where he was diagnosed with PTSD. He also saw a counselor for alcohol abuse but the Army told him he needed to do that on his own time, Joppa-Hagemann said.

"So many people knew there were issues. He sought help and nobody was paying attention," the 25-year-old widow told the AP. "In the last month, he put a gun to his head three times. He told me every day was a struggle to wake up and want to live. He said the things he had seen and done, no God would have forgiven him."

Joppa-Hagemann has become another crusader in the fight against the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for better mental health care back home. She and Coffee Strong's executive director, Jorge Gonzalez, were yanked from a Donald Rumsfeld book signing last month at the base, after confronting the former defense secretary by handing him a copy of her husband's funeral program.

She added that he had joined the military "because he believed the lies told by Rumsfeld during his tenure with the Bush administration," according to an account posted on Coffee Strong's website.

The Army only recently agreed to a proper military memorial for Hagemann, Hubert said, as policy generally dictates that only soldiers who kill themselves while overseas should be afforded that honor. It’s part of the problem, says Hubert, who worked for military health provider TRICARE until she grew so frustrated having to turn away soldiers who needed doctors’ appointments that she quit.

“It was hard to be constantly turning people down,” she says, because the Army doesn’t provide enough doctors to treat all manner of soldiers’ issues, forcing them to call over and over again only to learn that they couldn’t get an appointment. “I would cry sometimes at work. People would say, ‘I went to fight for my country, and this is what I get?’ It was a hard job.”

Hubert wound up at Coffee Strong, where she’s surrounded by folks who agree that the Army isn’t doing enough to help soldiers who come back from war. In the first year the shop was in business, there were about 170 soldiers coming in a month. Now, the number is up above 300, says Carter.

The group is now asking for an investigation at Lewis-McChord to find the root of the suicide problems, says Carter. But he’s already certain of one of them: “They’re sending soldiers on multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and when they come back they’re expected to be ready to deploy again in a year or 15 months. That’s not enough time to recover from trauma.” Nor do soldiers who know they’re going back to war really want to deal with their issues, he says. “I’ve had soldiers tell me ‘I don’t want to go to therapy. I’ve got to keep my edge.’”

So far, the military solution has been to throw money at the problem, says Carter. The Army recently built a $53-million barracks facility for a transition battalion, for example. “That makes for something you can put on the news, but it doesn’t fix the problem,” he says. “Soldiers are starting to catch on to the fact that if the military really cared about them, they’d be doing more to help.”

Champion wants to see counseling upon a soldier’s return—at least a month’s worth—not as an option but an order, so that there’s no stigma associated with getting help. When her son went into the Army, she told him she wasn’t worried he’d get physically hurt, but that “there are some things you never ever need to see in your entire life. I don’t want you to come back with your head all screwed up. That’s what happened.”

And for failing to help him, Champion blames the military.

“The Army failed my son. All they do is treat them like a damned number,” she says. “You’re not supposed to bury your children.”