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AWOL Soldier Seeking Treatment Arrested

brad gaskinsAssociated Press | November 15, 2007

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - A Soldier who served two combat tours in Iraq was arrested Nov. 14 for leaving the Army without permission more than a year ago to seek treatment for post traumatic stress disorder.

At a news conference hours before his arrest, Sgt. Brad Gaskins said he left the base in August 2006 because the Army wasn't providing effective treatment after he was diagnosed with PTSD and severe depression.

"They just don't have the resources to handle it, but that's not my fault," Gaskins said.

Tod Ensign, an attorney with Citizen Soldier, a GI rights group that is representing Gaskins, said the case is part of a "coming tsunami" of mental health problems involving Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

Last month, the Veterans Administration said more than 100,000 troops were being treated for mental health problems, and half of those specifically for PTSD.

Gaskins, 25, of East Orange, N.J., was taken into custody at a Watertown cafe by civilian police officers from Fort Drum and two local police officers, Ensign said. The lawyer said he had been on the phone with military prosecutors working out the details of Gaskins' surrender when the soldier was arrested.

Fort Drum spokesman Ben Abel said after a Soldier is AWOL for more than 30 days he becomes classified as a deserter and a federal arrest warrant is issued. He said he was unaware of the specifics of Gaskins' case and declined to comment on it.

An eight-year Army veteran, Gaskins served two tours in Iraq and a peacekeeping tour in Kosovo. He said his mental health began deteriorating during his second tour in Iraq, which began in June 2005, when his job was to conduct road searches and locate improvised explosive devices.

He said after returning to Fort Drum in February 2006, he began suffering flashbacks and nightmares, headaches, sleeplessness, weight loss and mood swings that took him from depression to irrational rages. Military doctors sent him to the Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, where he spent two weeks and was diagnosed with PTSD. When he later asked his commanders about returning to Samaritan, they told him it would delay any chance he had at obtaining a medical release, Gaskins said.

At the time, the Fort Drum mental health facility had a staff of a dozen caring for approximately 17,000 troops, Ensign said.

Gaskins said that because he had been unable to get proper help, he requested a two-week leave and went home to New Jersey, where he has been living since.

The base has expanded its mental health facility staff to 31 in the past year, with plans to add another 17 staffers, Abel said. "Is there a need for more - yes," he said.

Gaskins said he hasn't been able to get a job because of his PTSD, and that he and his wife have separated. He said he has only supervised visitation rights with his two children.

Citizen Soldier previously represented Spc. Eugene Cherry, another Fort Drum Soldier, who had faced a court-martial and a bad conduct discharge after going AWOL to get treatment. The Army softened its stance and gave Cherry a general discharge in July.