[Vision2020] Army Charges Iraq Vet Over Self-Inflicted Gun Wound
thansen at moscow.com
Sun Dec 2 14:00:30 PST 2007
"Grief-stricken by the death of her friend and bitter at the Army, Whiteside
awaits the Army's decision on her fate this week. 'I can fight them,' she
said, 'because I'm alive.'"
>From the Seattle Times at:
Army charges Iraq vet over self-inflicted gun wound
By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
The Washington Post
Despite years of exemplary service, Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, right, could
face prison over a mental breakdown in Iraq.
Now a psychiatric outpatient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in
Washington, Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, 25, is undergoing a court-martial and
faces the possibility of life in prison if she is tried and convicted.
WASHINGTON - In a nondescript conference room at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center, 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside listened last week as an Army prosecutor
outlined the criminal case against her. The charges: attempting suicide and
endangering the life of another soldier while serving in Iraq.
Her hands trembled as Maj. Stefan Wolfe, the prosecutor, argued that
Whiteside, now a psychiatric outpatient at Walter Reed, should be
court-martialed. After seven years of exemplary service, the Army reservist
faces the possibility of life in prison if she is tried and convicted.
Military psychiatrists at Walter Reed who examined Whiteside, 25, after she
recovered from her self-inflicted gun wound diagnosed her with a severe
mental disorder, possibly triggered by the stresses of a war zone. But
Whiteside's superiors considered her mental illness "an excuse" for criminal
conduct, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
At the hearing, Wolfe, who had warned Whiteside's lawyer of the risk of
using a "psychobabble" defense, pressed a senior psychiatrist at Walter Reed
to justify his diagnosis.
"I'm not here to play legal games," Col. George Brandt, chief of Behavioral
Health Services in Walter Reed's Department of Psychiatry, responded
angrily, according to a recording of the hearing. "I am here out of the
genuine concern for a human being that's breaking and that is broken. She
has a severe and significant illness. Let's treat her as a human being, for
In recent months, prodded by outrage over poor conditions at Walter Reed,
the Army has made a highly publicized effort to improve treatment of Iraq
veterans and change a culture that stigmatizes mental illness. The Pentagon
has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to new research and to care
for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. On Friday, it said it had
opened a new center for psychological health in Arlington, Va.
But outside the Pentagon, the military still largely deals with
mental-health problems in an ad-hoc way, often relying on the judgment of
combat-hardened commanders whose understanding of mental illness is vague or
The stigma around psychological wounds can be seen in the smallest of Army
policies. While family members of soldiers recovering at Walter Reed from
physical injuries are provided free lodging and a per diem to care for loved
ones, families of psychiatric outpatients usually have to pay their own way.
"It's a disgrace," said Tom Whiteside, a former Marine and retired federal
law-enforcement officer who lost his free housing after his daughter's
physical wounds had healed enough that she could be moved to the psychiatric
Under military law, soldiers who attempt suicide can be prosecuted under the
theory that it affects the order and discipline of a unit and brings
discredit to the armed forces. In reality, criminal charges are extremely
rare unless there is evidence the attempt was an effort to avoid service or
At one point, Whiteside almost accepted the Army's offer to resign in lieu
of a court-martial. But it meant she would have to explain for the rest of
her life why she was not given an honorable discharge. Her attorney also
thought she would have been left without the medical care and benefits she
No decision has been made on whether Whiteside's case will proceed to
The commander of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, Maj. Gen.
Richard Rowe Jr., who has jurisdiction over the case, "must determine
whether there is sufficient evidence to support the charges against Lt.
Whiteside and recommend how to dispose of the charges," said his spokesman.
In her father's footsteps
Whiteside, a valedictorian at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., a
wrestler and varsity soccer player, followed in her father's footsteps by
joining the military. She enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2001 and later
joined ROTC while studying economics at the University of Virginia. In
college, Whiteside said, she experienced periods of depression, but she
graduated and was commissioned as an officer in the Army Reserve.
In 2005, she received her first assignment as an officer: at Walter Reed. As
an executive officer of a support company, she supervised 150 soldiers and
officers, and her evaluations from that time presaged the high marks she
would receive most of her career.
"This superior officer is in the top 10 percent of Officers I have worked
with in my 16 years of military service," said her rater, Capt. Joel Grant.
She "must be promoted immediately, ahead of all peers."
Seeing so many casualties at Walter Reed made Whiteside feel she was not
bearing her full responsibility, she said, so she volunteered for duty in
Iraq. When she left in fall 2006, she carried with her a gift from her
father: the double-bladed Buck knife he had used in Vietnam.
She was assigned as a platoon leader in the 329th Medical Company (Ground
Ambulance) at the Camp Cropper detainee prison near Baghdad International
Airport. Cropper housed 4,000 detainees, including high-security prisoners
such as Saddam Hussein, and suspected terrorists and insurgents.
Whiteside, given the radio handle "Trauma Mama," supervised nine medics who
worked the night shift at the prison.
"I loved our mission," Whiteside said, "because it represented the best of
America: taking care of the enemy, regardless of what they are doing to us."
The hours were brutal. She ate one meal a day, slept in two four-hour shifts
in the barracks inside the prison and worked seven days a week. Her
superiors credited her with her unit's success. "She has produced
outstanding results in one of the most demanding and challenging Combat
Zones," her commander, Lt. Col. Darlene McCurdy, wrote in her evaluation.
But the dynamics outside her unit were rockier. Whiteside and some of her
female soldiers had conflicts with one of the company's male officers. They
believed he hindered female promotions and undercut Whiteside's authority,
according to Army investigative documents.
As the tensions with the officer increased, Whiteside said, she began having
panic attacks. She stopped sleeping, she said, and started self-medicating
with NyQuil and Benadryl but didn't seek help from the mental-health clinic
because she feared the Army would send her home, as it had recently done
with a colonel.
On Dec. 30, U.S. military officials took Saddam from his cell at Camp
Cropper for execution. The next day, thousands of inmates rioted, and
military police used rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and tear gas to
Whiteside took charge in the chaos, according to written statements by
troops in her unit. The next day, weary from the riots, she ran into the
problem officer. They had another argument.
Army documents describe what happened next.
At 6:20 p.m. a soldier frantically approached Maj. Ana Luisa Ramirez, a
mental-health nurse, and said Whiteside was "freaking out" and wanted to see
Ramirez. The nurse found Whiteside sitting on her bed, mumbling and visibly
upset. Ramirez left to get medication.
Later, she saw Whiteside in a dark hallway with her sweat-shirt hood pulled
over her head and her hands in her pockets. Ramirez asked Whiteside to come
into her room and noticed what appeared to be dried blood on her neck and
hands. When she tried to take a closer look, Ramirez said, Whiteside pointed
an M-9 pistol at her and "told me to move away and she locked the door,"
according to a statement Ramirez gave to the Army.
Ramirez tried to take Whiteside's gun, but Whiteside pushed her away and
expressed her hatred of the officer she thought was sabotaging her. She
twice fired into the ceiling.
Nurses began yelling, and Whiteside shouted that she wanted to kill them,
the report said. She opened the door and saw armed soldiers coming her way.
Slamming the door, she discharged the weapon once into her stomach.
Whiteside said she has little recollection of the events. She declined to
comment on whether she was trying to kill herself.
The medics who responded to the shooting scene were Whiteside's own crew.
Lockdown psych unit
Whiteside was still unconscious when she arrived at Walter Reed a few days
later. The bullet had ripped through one of her lungs, her liver, her spleen
and several other organs. Within two weeks, an Army criminal investigator
showed up in her hospital room, but a doctor shooed him away.
After a month, Whiteside was moved to Ward 54, the hospital's lockdown
psychiatric unit, where she was diagnosed with a severe major depressive
disorder and a personality disorder. According to a statement by an Army
psychiatrist, she was suffering from a disassociation with reality.
On Ward 54, Whiteside befriended a private, Sammantha Owen-Ewing, 20. She
was training to be a nurse when she suffered mental problems and was
admitted to Ward 54. She was still receiving psychiatric care at Walter Reed
when the Army discharged her. According to her husband, she was dropped off
at a nearby hotel with a plane ticket.
After being released from Ward 54, Whiteside joined the outpatient ranks
just as the Army was scrambling to overhaul its system for treating wounded
soldiers and President Bush ordered a commission to study military care for
At Walter Reed, the Army brought in combat-experienced officers to replace
the recovering patients whom it had asked to manage the lives of the 700
outpatients on post. The new Warrior Transition Brigade and its more
experienced leaders were supposed to manage more adeptly the tension between
soldiering and patient recovery.
It was Whiteside's commanders in this unit, a captain and a colonel, who
drew up criminal charges against her in April. The accusations included
assault on a superior commissioned officer, aggravated assault, kidnapping,
reckless endangerment, wrongful discharge of a firearm, communication of a
threat and two attempts of intentional self-injury without intent to avoid
The Army ordered Whiteside to undergo a sanity board evaluation.
By early August, Elizabeth Whiteside sought an alternative to court-martial.
She requested permission to resign, a measure the military often accepts.
After a review, district commander Rowe agreed to accept Whiteside's
resignation with a "general under honorable conditions" discharge that would
deprive her of most benefits, according to her pro bono civilian attorney,
But then, from her battalion commander in Iraq, Whiteside learned an
investigation had concluded there was "insufficient evidence for any
criminal action to be taken against" her. Furthermore, it had found a
hostile command climate and recommended that the officer who had been her
nemesis be removed from his position.
With this news, Whiteside asked that her letter of resignation be withdrawn.
She would fight the charges.
In an e-mail exchange, the prosecutor, Wolfe, told MacLean that even if
Whiteside won in court she would probably end up stigmatized and in a mental
institution, just like John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan.
Wolfe suggested the military court might not buy the mental-illness defense.
"Who doesn't find psychobabble unclear ... how many people out there believe
that insanity should never be a defense, that it is just ... an 'excuse.' "
Encouraging a friend
As her hearing approached, Whiteside lived with other outpatient soldiers in
a building on the grounds of Walter Reed. She kept her quarters neat and
She also offered encouragement over the phone to her friend Sammantha
Owen-Ewing. Owen-Ewing was waiting to see if she could receive her care from
the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At Whiteside's hearing, testimony focused on her state of mind at the time
of the shooting. The hearing officer has seven days to make a recommendation
on whether to dismiss the charges, offer a lesser punishment or go to
court-martial. The decision will be Rowe's.
A psychiatrist who performed Whiteside's sanity-board evaluation testified
that he found the lieutenant insane at the time of the shooting. One of the
doctors said Whiteside had a "severe mental disease or affect" and "did not
appreciate the nature and quality of her actions." Brandt testified that
Whiteside was "grappling with holding on to her sanity," adding: "She was
right on the edge, and she fell off."
Wolfe made his argument for a court-martial. "These are very serious
charges," he said. "The government's position is it should be a
After the hearing ended, Whiteside's phone buzzed with a text message from
Owen-Ewing's husband, asking Whiteside to call right away. His wife had
hanged herself the night before.
Grief-stricken by the death of her friend and bitter at the Army, Whiteside
awaits the Army's decision on her fate this week. "I can fight them," she
said, "because I'm alive."
Seeya round town, Moscow.
"Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil
and steady dedication of a lifetime."
--Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.
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