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Punishing the Victims

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True, I don’t have any medical or psychological credentials. Nevertheless, I feel completely confident in offering a diagnosis in this case. My diagnosis is an acute schizophrenia accompanied by self-destructive tendencies. The patient is the United States Army.

The patient has been observed manifesting multiple personalities on several occasions. One of the most distressing recent incidents is the subject of a study by Dana Priest and Anne Hull published in yesterday’s Washington Post.

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 in a preliminary hearing. 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 25-year-old Army reservist faces the possibility of life in prison if she is tried and convicted. Military psychiatrists at Walter Reed who examined Whiteside after she recovered from her self-inflicted gunshot 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 already 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 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 Christ’s sake!”

The Army absolutely needs to deal effectively with shirkers. Over the last seven years, we have witnessed the immense damage that can result from allowing a shirker to run loose, and to occupy high government office. Had the shirker in question been dealt with firmly and in a timely fashion back in the early seventies, all of this would have been avoided. However, here the question is whether the subject is a shirker or someone who is severely mentally ill.

We used to accept the notion that medical professionals observe and make judgments about the mental and physical health of service personnel. Laypersons accept their judgments. If they are suspicious that something isn’t right, they get an independent medical professional in whom they have confidence to do an independent assessment.

But something is very strange out at Walter Reed. Indeed, this case isn’t the only one I’ve heard. Earlier in the summer, I heard about a soldier who had attempted suicide in a camp in Kuwait, had been shipped back to Walter Reed with a note that he had attempted suicide and should be placed under close observation. Some person in authority at Walter Reed decided the soldier was a shirker and sent him off to stay in an Army billet and report in for therapy the following day. When he didn’t show for two days, finally the Military Police were sent to search for him. His body was found rotting, hanging from a ceiling fan in the billet.

This case sounds remarkably similar.

But now we have Major Stefan Wolfe, who knows that all psychology is just bullshit. Major Wolfe has probably been given an inner vision into this affair by God Almighty, from the sounds of it. He is apparently also ignorant of the rules of professional ethics that require lawyers (yes, including prosecutors) to treat the work and opinions of other professionals with respect.

And this suggests to me not that we can do without the services of qualified psychologists and other medical professionals, but that perhaps psychological services are badly needed to cover the prosecutorial side of the table.

In the meantime, of course, Major Wolfe is doing a brilliant job of reinforcing the Army’s reputation for subhuman treatment of patients at Walter Reed. He should be up soon for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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