The following is a personal reflection by Our Lives, Our Rights co-founder Greg Miller, a recently discharged U.S. Army infantryman who served in Iraq, about a fellow soldier named Joeseph Weeks.
Weeks was a U.S. Army infantryman and Iraq war veteran who received serious harassment and mistreatment for the severe trauma he had from witnessing and participating in the horrors of war. Knowing he could no longer participate in the U.S. military and its refusal to treat soldiers with PTSD with any care or respect, Weeks recognized he was a danger to himself and exercised his right to remove himself from that abusive situation and went AWOL.
While AWOL, Weeks connected with March Forward!, which stood by his decision to take his life into his own hands and leave his unit. March Forward! helped Weeks turn himself in after a long stint of being AWOL, and provided him attorneys to fight the charges. Not long after, Weeks was successfully discharged from the military.
Even though the issue of being in an abusive situation was resolved, his mental health problems were not. The crisis in mental health permeates the entire system for veterans, from the company level on active duty to VA care when we get out.
On August 8, Weeks was killed by police (alleged to be “suicide by cop”) in Morristown, Tenn., on the front lawn of the home he was living, during a mental breakdown during which he was threatening to kill himself.
March Forward! expresses our heartfelt condolences to friends and family of Joeseph Weeks. Many of our members served with Weeks and helped him through his process. We know that to end the constant, needless death of our brothers and sisters in uniform, we must join together to fight back against our command, and build a movement against the criminal occupation of our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan.
The case of Joseph Weeks is more proof that we have the right to refuse our orders to Afghanistan.
Remembering Joe Weeks
I first met Joseph Allan Weeks in a patient room at Madigan Army Medical Center, the hospital at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Wash. I was brand new to the Army, and Joe and I were in the same platoon; 2nd Platoon of Bravo Company, 4-9 Infantry, which is part of 4th Brigade at JBLM.
I had been tasked with guarding him in the hospital, where he'd been sent after getting out of control one night at the barracks and getting into a fight with an NCO who made it his business and pleasure to intervene physically. He was mildly sedated, but woke up at one point.
He'd never seen me before, and asked me if I was someone else, an NCO from the Company who I would later realize embodied the toxic leadership/bullying complex that exists in the Army, especially the Infantry.
After I said who I was, he started telling me random things about his experiences in the Army, specifically in Iraq, just talking and talking. The stories all involved being singled out by his leadership to be tormented in various ways, mentally and physically, for his perceived wrongdoings in their eyes, and he was warning me to watch out for this, as well as to take care of his buddies when we went to Iraq.
There exists within the Army a plague of "Toxic Leadership", the Army's own term for unfit leaders who create an unbearable environment in which to live and work. According to 2011 Amy study on toxic leadership: "Toxic leaders routinely see their subordinates as disposable instruments, rather than as people, have a destructive personality or interpersonal skills that have deleterious effects on climate, and appear motivated primarily by self-interest. The process for destructive leaders involves dominance, coercion, and manipulation.”
What does this look like in action? The toxic leader singles out soldiers who are perceived as "weaker" although through the structure of rank, any lower-ranking soldier is essentially powerless to stand up to leadership mistreatment. These are grown men who take great pleasure in tormenting their subordinates like a high school bully. Leaders have a nearly unchecked ability to punish soldiers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for anything, and their testimony in these matters goes unquestioned. You put up with the mistreatment, or you get punished.
Army mental health system is a joke
I lost track of Joe Weeks not long after seeing him in the hospital. We had only a few months before we were going to Iraq, and were very busy with a lot of late nights at work, but I knew he was in some stage of legal proceedings against him, during which time he went AWOL. I went to Iraq, and heard nothing of him until maybe a year or so after we came back. He had returned to the unit to turn himself in and got processed out of the Army.
When I got back from Iraq, before Joe turned up again, I had started seeking help from the Army for mental health issues related to my service and my time in Iraq. I found the Army's mental health system to be very confusing, very repetitive, very frustrating, and a complete joke. I had to explain my whole life story over and over to different therapists and psychologists, who inevitably ended up giving me a pamphlet that said to take deep breaths, or some other such nonsense, and had the number for the National Suicide Hotline, telling me to call if I felt like killing myself.
For more than a year, I struggled to find someone who would simply listen to me, listen to my specific situation, and use their knowledge and experience to try to help me feel more normal again. It felt like I was fighting with the Army to get people to do their jobs in a meaningful way and not blow me off, telling me I was fine, and to go back to work. I was far from fine. In the end, after jumping through countless hoops, I ended up getting some pills to help me put up with things, but I couldn't even take them when I needed them, at work, because they put me to sleep.
During this time, I realized that the people around me, guys I had known before, during and after deployment had changed too, and were going through the same thing, running into the same problems that I was with the mental health system, as well as the difficulty with our leadership.
One of the quickest ways to find your life made even more difficult at work, to almost instantly become ostracized by your peers and leadership is to say you have a problem and need help. The Army is a culture of doing what you're told, of not questioning, of fitting in, of not being "that guy" who rocks the boat.
The Army is also a place where if you can't articulate your problem, you don't have a problem. Dealing with mental health issues is difficult, and they're difficult to explain to a stranger. I was 33 years old when I went through this, and it was hard for me. Most of my buddies were much younger, and lacked the ability to explain what they were experiencing, and were hesitant to push back when they were told by their doctor that they were fine.
Joe Weeks is 'chaptered out'
When someone gets discharged at the discretion of the Army, they say the person is being "chaptered" out. Joe Weeks was being chaptered for going AWOL and acting out at work. Now that he was back, having seen what was happening to me and the people around me, and remembering his stories from the hospital of being abused by his leadership, I became interested in his personal story. Knowing how difficult and exasperating the mental health system was to deal with, I started to wonder how Joe was managing within it.
I didn't get a lot of opportunity to speak to him directly, as I was at the end of my enlistment, in the process of getting out of the Army which kept me pretty busy, and he was busy being processed out. Probably the most interesting thing was a folder of documentation containing everything about him and why he was being discharged, and it detailed his story from childhood through the present.
It sounded like Joe grew up with about as many problems as a kid could have. He had family problems, he got into trouble at school, he had learning problems, he had a dysfunctional life. In one part, he talked about what the happiest time of his life was. He said that this was just before he joined the Army. He'd been talking to a psychologist for a while, and he was taking an anti-psychotic drug that was really helping him stay on an even keel. When he told his Army recruiter this, the recruiter told him he would have to stop taking the prescription so he could pass a drug test, and that it was critical that he never tell anyone he was taking it, because it could compromise his enlistment. I was appalled when I read this.
Joe was a troubled guy who joined young and bringing his then untreated mental and behavioral health problems to the Army, became the subject of the abuse of his toxic, inept leadership. On top of that came the burdens of military service and war, friends dying, PTSD, and the relationship problems that are so common to people in the Army. He was so distraught that he actually went AWOL for several days on a base in Iraq. It was clear to those around him that he had broken down under the weight of all this, and that he should have never been recruited into the Army in the first place.
The fact that he would do something that was so far from his own best interest, to abandon this counseling he'd been receiving, and the medication that was helping him so much, says something about his ability to stand up for his own care. I guess payday for his recruiter was more important than having honesty or integrity, which are supposed to be core "Army values," rather than setting Joe up for failure.
Army research on mental health
Around the time I saw Joe's packet I also read an Army research paper on mental health and suicide. It was very telling; the Army clearly understood the mental health issues troops were facing as a result of their service. It also knew the failures of its mental health system: many active duty soldiers who committed suicide had been in a mental health program within 30 days of the time they took their own lives. The paper acknowledge the Army leadership's inability to create a supportive environment for troops to seek help in. The report showed how untreated mental health issues can manifest themselves as problems at work, as an alcohol or drug problem, or as domestic violence problems, among other things.
The report states, "One of the most important lessons the Army has learned is that many health and disciplinary issues, ranging from Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) to illicit drug use to suicide, are interrelated. To view soldier misconduct in isolation, for example, fails to capture the real likelihood that the misconduct was related to an untreated physical or behavioral health condition, such as increased aggression associated with PTSD or depression."
According to this study, soldiers with PTSD frequently also have depression and substance abuse. They are two to three times more likely to have domestic violence problems. Depression is a factor in 50-60 percent of Army suicides, and problems brought on by hazing, supervisor conflict, and failed relationships also contribute highly to soldiers killing themselves.
Something was not right with Joe Weeks
Whether or not this study was disseminated to the lowest levels of leadership, (which it should have been immediately,) even the lower-enlisted people in the unit knew that something wasn't right with Joe Weeks. They knew that he needed help, not more abuse from the chain of command, who were continuing to victimize him by forcing him out of the Army with no meaningful help for his service-related problems.
I mention these things because on August 8, Joe Weeks was shot and killed by two rounds from an M-4 rifle, fired by a police officer called to a disturbance at Joe's girlfriend's house in Morristown, Tenn. Joe was out of the Army by this time, and the girlfriend's daughter had called 911 when Joe was threatening to kill himself with a handgun.
When the police arrived, he was holding the gun, possibly drunk, fighting with his girlfriend, and when he refused to put it down they fired, killing him. Knowing Joe, I believe he committed “suicide by cop.” He may not have set out to die that day, but I believe when he saw the opportunity to put an end to everything, he took it. Google "veteran suicide by cop", and you'll see numerous articles about similar incidents.
A Seattle Times article, "Troubled veterans left without health-care benefits" (August 12, 2012) describes troops with otherwise honorable service being discharged, other-than-honorably, due to what they say are reactions to PTSD and other service-related conditions, such as going AWOL, or substance abuse. An other-than-honorable discharge makes it difficult, if not impossible, to utilize the VA's services upon discharge. The article cited a 2010 survey of over 90,000 Marines, finding that a Marine who served in combat and had a PTSD diagnosis was 11 times more likely to receive a misconduct discharge than a Marine who did not deploy, and did not have PTSD.
The military knows. It knows what it's doing to service members when it uses them up and spits them out, despite the “honorable service” in which their injuries occurred; their own information proves this. Troops are not getting the help they need from the military. Mental health treatment is denied and stigmatized at every level, and when this happens troops frequently feel like their only escapes are to go AWOL or kill themselves.
Joe was not alone. His situation was not an isolated one. The United States Army failed him from day one, from the moment his recruiter told him to stop taking his prescription medication, to the abuse and mistreatment by his leadership, right through his other-than-honorable discharge from the Army which kept him from using the VA to get help. Even without the benefit of the Army's research findings, everyone in the company at the time knew Joe had problems. Mental health problems, financial problems, relationship problems, a drinking problem, and they pushed him out the door. The blood of Joseph Allan Weeks lies squarely on the hands of the United States Army, and the leadership of 4-9 Infantry.
2011. "Antecedents and consequences of toxic leadership in the U.S. Army: A two year review and recommended solution"
2012. "Army 2020: Generating Health and Discipline in the Force Ahead of the Strategic Reset"