I recently wrote about an Army report (Schlagbyte 10/22/07) that revealed 20% of regular Army soldiers, and as many as 40% of reservists serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffer mental distress when they return home. Many of those who suffer do not seek help until they become functionally disabled.

Last week, I read about Brad Gaskins (NYT, 11/18/07), a 25-year-old Army Sergeant, who served two combat tours in Iraq. When the nightmares and anxiety became overwhelming, he went AWOL and hasn’t returned since August 2006.

Sergeant Gaskins was his high school’s starting quarterback; he enlisted in the Army when he was 17 because he wanted to improve his life, have a career, help his family, and serve his country. He was by all descriptions a good, tough, talented soldier, but the war etched away at his spirit. Sergeant Gaskins was reluctant to share his distress for fear his superiors would label him weak, or worse, crazy. But during his second deployment he came home for a two-week leave and did seek help for his problems. He was evaluated, given drugs for depression and insomnia, but was given no psychotherapy or follow-up care. He returned to his military base where the tanks, marching soldiers, and gunfire became unbearable, so he walked away back to his wife and newborn son.

He became reclusive, locked himself in a darkened room, and trembled when he saw images from Iraq on the evening news. He yelled at his two-year-old son for no apparent reason, and once put a knife to his wife’s throat as if he didn’t know who she was; these are all clinical manifestations of PTSD.

A couple of months ago Sergeant Gaskins approached a veteran’s advocacy group, Citizen Soldier, and asked for advice. They encouraged him to get a psychological evaluation and to turn himself in saying he could not hide forever. Last week Sergeant Brad Gaskins turned himself in. He said, “I’m not a deserter, I’ve served my country and now I need help.…. I just want it all to go away and get my life back.”

Sergeant Gaskins has been hospitalized; he could be discharged from the Army for medical reasons and declared disabled. He could be court-martialed, which could land him in prison and prevent him from receiving veterans’ benefits. I’m hoping the Army will treat him and not punish him.

We have to stop waiting until our vets end up in psychiatric wards before we help them. We must come together as communities and ceremonially welcome home our soldiers, honoring them as returning warriors. We need proactively to reintegrate them by mobilizing our resources to reach out and help them cope, learn, do, or explore what they want to be doing from now on. We must get away from a mental illness model that focuses on disability and drugs, and move toward a community-based prevention model that focuses on ones strength’s to end the wars inside.