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The Army Makes Peace With a Former Iraq Medic

Published: New York Times, July 15, 2007

AWOLSpecialist Eugene Cherry went off to war in the summer of 2004 over the protests of his mother. But he was healthy, she said, and hopeful that his military experience would ultimately mean a better future for himself.

When he came back from Iraq in the fall of 2005, said his mother, Cozy Cherry, he had nothing in him. “He didn’t care,” she said. “He was a whole different person.”

A few weeks after his return to his base at Fort Drum in upstate New York, he visited Ms. Cherry’s home in Chicago on leave. He rarely slept for more than a few hours, his temper on hair-trigger as he fixated on recollections of the mutilated victims of car bombings whom he treated as a battlefield medic.

Instead of returning to Fort Drum as he was supposed to, Specialist Cherry stayed in Chicago, where he eventually sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Because he was absent without leave, court-martial proceedings were started against him.

Specialist Cherry was about to go to trial when he received word last week that the Army had dropped the case and would grant him a general discharge. He was officially discharged on Friday.

“He requested a discharge, and we felt that was in the best interest of both the Army and Specialist Cherry, so that’s what we did,” said Benjamin Abel, media relations officer for Fort Drum, a large Army base near the Canadian border that is the home of the 10th Mountain Division.

The case was unusual, according to veterans’ advocacy groups, for two reasons: the amount of attention it received, and the granting of a discharge that will allow Specialist Cherry, 24, to keep most benefits, including lifetime medical benefits.

“Most G.I.’s like Eugene are serving lengthy prison terms for being AWOL this long,” said Raymond Parrish, a counselor with the Chicago chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War who worked with Specialist Cherry.

It was in 2002 that Mr. Cherry joined the Army, won over, he said, by the promise that he would be able to pay for college. Three years ago, his unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, was deployed to Iraq. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.

As a combat medic, he went on infantry unit patrols to provide medical assistance, making him a witness to carnage from the beginning. “Our first week, we had a kidnapping victim come in beheaded,” he said. “They brought him in one day and brought his head in another.”

As the year wore on, Specialist Cherry suffered a mental breakdown, he said. He sought treatment in Iraq, and his medical records documenting this later proved crucial to his case, his supporters said.

When the unit came back to Fort Drum in summer 2005 after more than a year of combat, Specialist Cherry sought psychiatric help at the base. “They just gave me some drugs and sent me on my way,” he said. The Army disputes the assertion that the level of care provided Specialist Cherry was inadequate.

By the time he went on leave that fall, Specialist Cherry was unable to control his temper. He thought of suicide. “His life was hell and my life was hell,” his mother said. “One time he jumped up and pushed me into the wall. I couldn’t believe it.”

Specialist Cherry should have sought further help at Fort Drum, Mr. Abel said, adding that leaving his unit was inexcusable.

About six months after Specialist Cherry arrived in Chicago, his mother sought the help of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and staff members persuaded him to come in for treatment. “The war was not over for him,” said Mr. Parrish, who referred him to a psychologist, Hannah Frisch.

Dr. Frisch, who estimates that 5 percent of her practice is made up of combat veterans, diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and put Specialist Cherry on a course of therapy that included counseling.

Specialist Cherry was eventually persuaded to return to Fort Drum this spring for his court-martial. If convicted, he would have faced up to a year in military prison.

Dr. Frisch traveled to the base to advocate for him. His case was publicized on blogs, and some veterans groups wrote letters to the military on his behalf. So did Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic presidential candidate.

“On this case we got letters from across the country,” said Tod Ensign, a longtime veterans advocate who runs a peace project based near Fort Drum in Watertown, the Different Drummer Internet Café.

Mr. Cherry’s supporters suggest that the publicity, as well as his good record before he went absent without leave, helped persuade the military to cease prosecution and grant him a discharge.

On Thursday, as Specialist Cherry was packing at Fort Drum to go back home to Chicago, he did not care so much about the reason. “For once in a couple of years,” he said, “I’ll probably have a decent night’s sleep.”

Correction: July 19, 2007

An article on Sunday about the Army’s decision to drop court-martial proceedings against Specialist Eugene Cherry, a former medic in Iraq who failed to return to his base at Fort Drum in upstate New York, referred incorrectly to the treatment provided by Hannah Frisch, a Chicago psychologist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Frisch gave him counseling but did not prescribe antidepressants.


Associated Press Writer

May 14, 2007, 4:04 PM EDT

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- A 10th Mountain Division soldier facing a bad conduct discharge for going AWOL says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is being court martialed because he went home for help after the Army failed to provide him with adequate treatment. [more]

"They don't want the liability so they deny I have a problem, and because I tried to help myself, now they want to make me a criminal," Spc. Eugene Cherry said in a telephone interview from Fort Drum, where
he is restricted to post pending a court martial.

Cherry served as a combat medic in Iraq for a year with the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, returning to Fort Drum in June 2005. That November, he took an unauthorized leave from the Army, returning to his native Chicago to live with his mother and find mental health treatment.

"This is not a borderline case. There is no question about his diagnosis," said Dr. Hannah Frisch, a clinical psychologist who diagnosed Cherry with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

Frisch prepared a six-page report on Cherry's condition. She hoped to meet Monday with Cherry's commanders and post mental health officials to discuss his case.

Frisch said Cherry needed intensive, individualized psychotherapy, not just drugs, to treat his condition.

"Here's a young man, a combat veteran who has clearly sacrificed a great deal for his country. It appalls me that they are treating him like a criminal when he needs mental help," said Frisch, who said she has treated other soldiers but never before taken such an advocacy role on a soldier's behalf.

Fort Drum officials were not immediately available to comment on Cherry's case, said Army spokesman Ben Abel, who was unaware of the specifics of Cherry's case.

"Our records indicate he was receiving treatment. But if a soldier goes AWOL, they negate the opportunity for treatment," Abel said.

Cherry, 24, joined the Army in October 2002 and re-enlisted for a second tour while overseas.

Cherry told Frisch that in Iraq his biggest fear was being kidnapped and beheaded, according to the report. He regularly saw the burned and charred bodies of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens. He saw a lieutenant shot in the head.

Cherry said the most disturbing incident he saw came when an Army ordnance team attempted to blow up a minivan that had been found loaded with explosives, propane tanks and flammables. The explosion leveled a nearby three-story apartment building, injuring dozens of residents.

Mental Health facility serving over 13,000 GIs
at Ft Drum

The first victim Cherry went to help was a middle-aged Iraqi woman. When he turned her over, Cherry found half her face was blown off. The nightmares began soon after that, then the sleeplessness, followed by the weight loss and depression, the report said.

During the last three months of his deployment, Cherry saw a military psychologist and was put on anti-depression medication.

Cherry said when he returned to Fort Drum in June 2005, he sought counseling but experienced only postponements and reschedulings.

"They just kept putting treatment off. They told me to basically deal with it. I made everyone in the chain of command aware that I was having issues. They just blew it off," Cherry said.

The post mental health clinic [shown below] has 11 psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to serve nearly 17,000 soldiers and their families.

After a year of treatment at home with Frisch, Cherry felt he was strong enough to return to Fort Drum to resolve his status with the Army. During that time, Cherry said he made no effort to hide and the Army made no attempt to find him.

When he arrived back at Fort Drum in March, he had one therapy session and was again put on a regimen of drugs. Two weeks ago, he was told he was being court martialed. Not only does a bad conduct discharge bring the potential of up to a year in a military prison, it also would make Cherry ineligible for veteran's medical benefits and remains a permanent part of his record as a felony conviction, said Tod Ensign, the legal director of Citizen Soldier, a GI rights group that is supporting Cherry.

"Eugene is a case study of what is happening Army-wide. The military needs to start taking care of its soldiers, not casting them aside," Ensign said.

With approximately 3,500 troops with the 2nd Brigade scheduled to begin returning home next month from Iraq, it is essential that Fort Drum be prepared for more troubled troops, Ensign said. A previous New England Journal of Medicine study showed nearly one in five returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan experience measurable levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.