Brad Gaskins grew up in Orange, N.J., played starting quarterback for his high school football team and joined the U.S. Army at age 17. He had to wait for graduation before he could formally enter the military.
Today, Sgt. Gaskins’ life is in tatters. His dreams are haunted by visions of the dead bodies he saw in Iraq, he wakes from his nightmares drenched in sweat, his heart races, his mouth goes dry, he trembles, he has flashbacks, he feels cold.
And to make matters worse, two officers from the military’s Criminal Investigative Division and two local police arrested and handcuffed Gaskins on November 14 for going AWOL–hours before he was to voluntarily surrender to authorities at Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., and hours after base officials assured his civilian attorney he would be “treated sympathetically.”
Gaskins has been diagnosed with exceptionally severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression, according to an independent evaluation by civilian therapist Rosemary Masters. Another civilian doctor and two military doctors have also diagnosed PTSD.
What you can do Activists in the Watertown, N.Y., area will gather at the Different Drummer Café outside of Fort Drum on December 6 at 6:30 p.m. for a town hall meeting on PTSD.
During Gaskins’ first tour in Iraq, he eagerly served as part of the Third Infantry Division, the spearhead of the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Gaskins thought himself lucky to have a chance to serve his country. Then he began encountering the badly burned bodies of Iraqi victims of the U.S. military’s “shock and awe” bombing raids.
He still can’t shake those images from his head. During his evaluation with Masters, according to medical records, he confessed, “I hate to talk about it. I can see a picture as clear as if it was yesterday. I have it playing in my head right now. Am I crazy?”
Gaskins’ unit was assigned the grizzly task of burying the bodies of the Iraqi dead. “He had found this assignment very disturbing,” writes Masters in her evaluation. “Bulldozers were used to push the bodies into mass graves. The bodies would fall apart, the smell was unforgettable.”
“He felt badly that the bodies were treated with such disrespect,” she continued. “There was no effort made to identify the dead so that their families could know what happened to them. He was expected to handle many of the dead bodies which were significantly decayed and often ‘oozing goop’ onto the ground.”
In a phone interview, Gaskins explained that he was supposed to “to pick up these same people we just killed–pick up their bodies and search them for intelligence information. That was kind of hard, being young. And still, I did my job.”
When he returned from his second tour in February 2006, he sought treatment for his mental health issues on base, but Fort Drum has only 12 licensed mental health professionals for some 17,000 soldiers and their families.
Gaskins quickly discovered that he couldn’t get the treatment at Fort Drum he knew he needed. What’s more, the sights and sounds of the base–people in uniform, Army vehicles, the sound of gunfire–triggered his muscles to tense up, his heart to race and an unbearable level of anxiety.
“The hospital at Fort Drum doesn’t have adequate professionals to take care of people with PTSD,” said Gaskins. “I’ve seen it myself. Their waiting room is full. They can’t provide quality care, and they don’t even have an in-patient mental health facility. They have to contract with a civilian hospital outside the base to provide that kind of service.
“I would spend maybe 25 to 30 minutes in an appointment, they would give me medications and send me on my way. Even when I had an appointment, nothing was guaranteed–two times they called me and told me that my appointment had to be rescheduled. I’m a seven-year Army veteran, and I’ve been deployed four times [twice to Iraq, once to Kuwait and once to Kosovo]. If that doesn’t warrant A-1 quality health care, then I don’t know what does.”
So in early 2006, Gaskins went absent without leave (AWOL) to get treatment. He also contacted Tod Ensign, director of the GI rights group Citizen Soldier, for advice about how to fight the military’s disregard for his mental health–and its effort to criminally prosecute him for seeking care.
Ensign helped bring publicity to Gaskins’ plight, lining up interviews with media outlets and getting the story told in the New York Times and an Associated Press report.
Already, the media scrutiny has produced results. The military was forced to transfer Gaskins from Fort Drum to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., which is far better equipped to diagnose and medically evaluate soldiers suffering from combat-related mental health disorders.
For active-duty troops returning from a combat tour, the military’s mental health screening amounts to handing a soldier a questionnaire to fill out–and a strong inducement to minimize or conceal potential problems.
As Ensign explains, “They give you this mental health survey form, and if you don’t write ‘no’ on everything, they tell you that you will be flagged, possibly delayed in separating from the military and in reuniting from your family in order to ‘carry out further evaluation’ of your condition.
“So there’s a heavy disincentive to honestly report whether you’ve been having flashbacks, troubling thoughts of any kind, bouts of hyper-alertness and so on.”
Once a soldier is no longer active duty and becomes a veteran, they enter a new bureaucratic tangle.
“In the veterans’ health system, 400,000 claims are pending right now,” explains Ensign. “There are severe shortages of resources all around. About a month ago, the New York Times reported that mental health is the second-largest disease category they are dealing with now.
“They admit they are treating 100,000 people right now, and half of those are PTSD diagnoses. But the Pentagon reports that only 30,000 people have been injured in the war. This is ridiculous! I’d say if you have a PTSD diagnosis, you’ve been injured. The whole system is incapable of meeting the needs of these soldiers. It’s that simple.
“If Bechtel, General Dynamics and Kellogg Brown and Root could figure out a way to make a buck off of PTSD, you might see that change. But right now, the battle for dollars is being fought for and won by the heavy hitting, politically connected, massive Fortune 100 defense contractors, and there isn’t much left at the end of the day for expenditures on soldiers’ needs.”
Those needs will only increase as the war drags on. According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 20.3 percent of active-duty troops and an astonishing 42.4 percent of reservists and National Guard personnel were identified as needing mental health treatment.
In other words, there are hundreds of thousands of veterans who need treatment from a system that is already strained to the breaking point.
That’s why Brad Gaskins feels a duty to speak up even as he struggles to put his own life back together. “I’m not doing this for myself, I’m doing this for the other soldiers out there that need help, who maybe are embarrassed or who fear their command or other repercussions,” Gaskins says.
“The military teaches you to be tough and stand up for things, and I’m a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and I’m going to do just that. Even though I’m not well, I still remember that drive to be the best and to take care of soldiers, and that’s what I am doing now.”
To help publicize Gaskins’ case and the larger crisis in the military’s medical system, Ensign plans to hold a town meeting on PTSD at the Different Drummer Café outside of Fort Drum, on December 6 at 6:30 p.m.
Ensign hopes that Iraq Veterans Against the War and other local antiwar groups will help publicize the event–and lend their voices to what must become a growing campaign to make sure the military can’t get away with putting a new generation of U.S. war veterans through the hell of war, only to abandon them when they return home.