The crisis in mental health care at Fort Lewis, Wash. is a well-known scandal in the United States. As a result of public pressure from soldiers and their families, the Army has launched an official internal investigation, fired top doctors and commanders, and overturned hundreds of refusals to diagnose PTSD.
But the crisis is far from over. There has been no meaningful change whatsoever in the military’s mental health failure. The story of Spc. John Etterlee exposes the reality of the situation. He needs our support right now, as do all service members whose lives are being thrown away.
The story of Spc. John Etterlee
John Etterlee joined the U.S. Army in 2001, was honorably discharged, then enlisted again in 2006. From a working-class town in rural Louisiana, lack of jobs and student loan debt led him to join both times.
In 2003, Spc. Etterlee was part of the invasion of Iraq, attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
He deployed to Iraq a second time and spent 15 months in Baghdad with 2/30th Infantry, 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. Spc. Etterlee was a chemical specialist, but spent most of his deployment performing the duties of an infantryman in his unit, including raids, tower guard and convoy operations.
Those deployments would change his life forever—as they did for countless other GIs and an entire population of Iraqis.
On April 28, 2008, Spc. Etterlee’s close friend on the deployment and neighbor back in Louisiana, Sgt. Marcus Mathis, was killed in action. Spc. Etterlee told March Forward!:
“He was standing on the back of a flatbed truck when the mortars hit. It hit him and just blew his body all over the place. Three other people were killed that day” said Spc. Etterlee of the incident.
“I basically froze. I didn’t really talk. At this point I started to realize that the war was bullshit. I was reading a lot about it—there’s a lot of stuff you’re not going to know unless you dig, and I started getting that feeling. I started feeling empty, like ‘what the hell am I doing here.’ That pride I had once all went away. I didn’t really have any emotion, I was just there.
“That’s when sleep problems and anxiety really started. Initially I tried to get counseling for it, after about two or three weeks, but it got swept under the rug. I went to see the only combat trauma professionals available to us, but their main focus was to keep people in theater instead of treating them. Like anyone else I kept my mouth shut and kept going. When I got back my sleep problems never stopped, I’ve been battling that ever since.
“I never sleep more than a couple hours at a time. I’m waking up constantly from explosions, witnessing attacks, the trauma of having a couple of close calls myself. I’ve taken sleeping pills for the past 2 years, but they don’t work. I thrash around constantly in my sleep. I even had to stop sleeping in bed with my wife because it was too dangerous for her.
“After trying so hard to get help I felt empty. The emptiness I felt came from not getting help from the people I turned to, my leaders. I didn’t know who to turn to. When that happens, you’re lost, there’s nothing you can do but live with it. I even got ridiculed for asking for help. My first sergeant laughed it off, told me to ‘suck it up.’”
“Help” at Fort Lewis
Depression, anxiety, and symptoms associated with the inability to sleep plagued Spc. Etterlee. When he arrived at Fort Lewis, he sought help for the life-changing symptoms he was experiencing. A doctor at the VA hospital made the obvious diagnosis—that Spc. Etterlee had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
One would expect that a U.S. soldier who dutifully followed all his orders, went to war twice, then had horrific experiences that left legitimate, life-altering wounds would be cared for, given treatment, and allowed to recover from his trauma.
But that’s not the way things work in the U.S. military. Despite a PTSD diagnosis from a VA doctor, Spc. Etterlee was told at Ft. Lewis’ Madigan Hospital that he didn’t have PTSD, but “adjustment disorder.” He was one of several hundred at Fort Lewis whose diagnoses were improperly overturned under Col. Homas, who was trying to “save taxpayer money” on therapy and compensation. Spc. Etterlee was offered next to nothing in terms of treatment.
“I’ve been to counselors, doctors, chain of command, everyone. Nobody would help. I went to see brigade chaplain and told him everything. Once I told him what was going on, he said ‘it seems like you’ve talked to everyone I can refer you to, so I don’t know what I can do for you.’”
The criminal neglect of GIs with PTSD throughout the entire U.S. military came under the spotlight at Fort Lewis, as over the past two years March Forward! members and other activists have been exposing the crisis and organizing soldiers against it. Just two months ago, this resulted in the firing of Col. Homas and two of the top doctors at the base hospital. More than 300 soldiers had their PTSD diagnosis re-instated, including Spc. Etterlee.
Punishment for having PTSD
Spc. Etterlee is currently undergoing the process of being medically discharged from the Army. But this process is notoriously long and arduous. Soldiers are expected to remain in their units and perform normal duties—a bizarre expectation, as the basis of their medical discharge is the inability to continue to perform required duties. Soldiers can be transferred to the Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB), which provides a much more stress-free, treatment-oriented unit while the medical discharge is in progress.
Soldiers always report that trying to seek help for PTSD and endure the medical discharge process while still in the original unit is far from adequate.
“My anxiety level has increased so much. I’ve gotten no help whatsoever on it. I haven’t been able to concentrate on getting better at all, in fact I’m getting worse. I feel like I’m going to blow up. I feel like I’m on the edge.”
And officers still scratch their heads over why so many soldiers are committing suicide.
Spc. Etterlee has been trying to get reassigned to WTB, so he can get better treatment and focus on recovery while being medically discharged. The potential for that to happen is now under threat, as Spc. Etterlee is facing disciplinary action—for having PTSD.
Spc. Etterlee’s Battalion Commander, Colonel Sean Kirschner, has threatened to give him an Article 15 (legal disciplinary action) because Etterlee allegedly missed a doctor’s appointment. If Etterlee is charged, he then becomes ineligible to transfer to WTB for treatment.
“My sleep problems were taking over. I had two alarm clocks, and I’d sleep through both. I wasn’t late for anything one time my entire career in the Army. The medication they were giving me wasn’t working. Sleep kept getting worse. My chain of command didn’t want to hear that.”
Consider the absurdity of this situation: Spc. Etterlee is being medically discharged because doctors have ruled that his trauma and sleep disorder make him incapable of performing the duties required from him as a soldier; he is then being threatened with punishment for not being able to perform his duties as a result of that disability; punishment for symptoms of his disability will then prevent him from getting adequate treatment for that disability.
Spc. Etterlee has been active with March Forward! for several months, helping to expose the problems at Fort Lewis. Now he needs our help. We must unite to put pressure on his Battalion Commander so he does not issue an Article 15. We must also demand that Spc. Etterlee be immediately transferred to WTB until he is discharged.
Please join us in building pressure on Spc. Etterlee’s command to not punish soldiers with PTSD and transfer them to WTB.
Spread the word and encourage others to participate. It is only by building a movement of soldiers, veterans, military families and supporters can we prevent our lives from being thrown away.
Disclaimer from Spc. John Etterlee: "In this interview I am only speaking for myself. The opinions are mine and not that of the U.S. military."