Lt. Whiteside — sad update

This is an update to an update, and sad one too. The Washington Post today reported that Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside attempted to kill herself for a second time. The report, which came as the lede to a larger story on the record level of attempted and completed suicides among active duty soldiers in 2007, goes on to say that she did so the day that the army finally announced that it was dropping charges against her for incidents during her first suicide attempt, during which she pointed her gun at fellow soldiers.

On this second attempt, Whiteside attempted to overdose on antidepressants and other drugs. She left a note that rad, in part, “I’m very disappointed with the Army,” …Hopefully this will help other soldiers.”

Whiteside is now in stable condition, and is due for a discharge from the Army that will preserve her access to mental health benefits. But a central implication of her story is that many others don’t make it.

There is an invaluable review of different strands of that larger story at Mike Dunford’s The Questionable Authority blog.

More than just covering the numbers, Dunford looks at possible causes for the wave of suicides, and gives a brief, depressing introduction to the structural problems within the Army that obstruct attempts to improve the mental health care system available to American service men and women.

Phil Carter’s Intel Dump picks up on the story too, leading with the New England Journal of Medicine report on the link between Traumatic Brain Injury (a blow to or into the brain) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is a vigorous comment thread there, mostly populated by current or retired service members that gets at some of the problems in the military’s handling of soldiers/marines with mental injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given all that, I’ll just make the point I’ve tried to argue in several other posts: that when we talk about problems in the public engagement with science, it seems to me that it isn’t a deficit in specific knowledge that matters. Rather, it’s the habit of mind with which scientists approach empirical questions.

Consider this, from the Army’s first response to Lt. Whiteside’s case:

“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.”

If your default on neuroscience is that it is “psychobabble” then, Houston, we have a problem.

In particular, neuroscience understands – this is a true banality – that mind is a phenomenon of brain; dozens, hundreds of lines of evidence show that beneath disordered behavior are physiological derangements of the brain. If you are in charge of veterans who have undergone all kinds of stress, you don’t need to know what the latest fMRI study shows – but you do need to know that much.

Image: Francisco de Goya, “The Charge of the Mamelukes,” 1814, The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License

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5 Comments on “Lt. Whiteside — sad update”

  1. SGT Lewis Says:

    I’m sorry, but I served in Iraq in very, very stresssful situations with commanders who challenged my faith in the Army, too, but I didn’t ever think to kill myself or any others around me. Many, many soldiers also have had the same experiences as Elizabeth, but most of us do not have emotional breakdowns. It’s sad that the press just can’t seem to wait for us all to have PTSD and blow our brains out when we get back, and then blame it on Bush or the Army, or whatever the scapegoat is, but it’s just not that way. We are professional soldiers. Professional soldiers do not threaten to kill other soldiers without certain consequences. Elizabeth did this. She obviously served honorably up until this point, and we should do everything to support her in recognition of this, but she does not deserve an honorable discharge. Period. She should be medically discharged, and helped the rest of her life, but not honored for what was life threatening and mission crippling behavior. I wish her good luck and I hope we are doing everything to help her recover. It’s a shame her father isn’t being given housing while she recovers.

  2. Tom Says:

    Sgt. Lewis:

    We don’t disagree: the issue was whether Lt. Whiteside should be discharged with medical benefits to take care of the mental injury she suffered while performing her service, or if she should be courtmartialed. The latter seemed to me to be a course born more or less entirely out of willed ignorance of the reality of mental damage.

    Go back and read the Washington Post articles on her case: there was a real serious attempt to put her through the military justice system, not its medical one — and the prosecuting officer at the start of the process warned her attorneys not to try any psychological mumbo jumbo. That’s the heart of the issue.

  3. Julie Says:

    My husband was in the army. My daughter and her fiancee both served in the Marines as CFR firefighters. She was overseas the entire time with the exception of her last 8 months. All of them excelled and did very well with no lasting issues.

    I feel so badly for Ms. Whiteside. The military is NOT set up to handle anyone who does not conform whether by choice or by illness. Most commanding officers do not have the capabilities to deal with any situation that is outside the “normal” military situations they expect. Sadly, it’s people like Ms. Whiteside and her young friend that committed suicide that fall through the cracks, receive less than adequate care, and are dropped like hot potatoes as fast as the military can make anything happen. Whether you’re a professional soldier, a doctor, a professional athlete, or homeless, you are STILL first and foremost a human being. Mental illess is just that; an illness. It should be treated with the same dignity and respect we would give someone suffering from cancer or any other type of dibilitating illness. No one “chooses” to be mentally ill. It’s time for our governmental leaders as well as the general public to wake up and realize we are doing an injustice to the men and women that CHOOSE to try and make a difference. So easy for the rest of us sitting at our computers to judge.

  4. Tom Says:

    Julie,

    Many thanks for your comment. I agree completely

  5. Julie Says:

    It’s unfortunate that the general public doesn’t really understand what basic training ( or any other military training) is truly for; To deconstruct an individual and remake them in the mold of the “professional soldier” and make then as identical as they can to next serivce person. For anyone that has never served in the military, there are no individuals.

    However, it’s just not realistic to expect that all human psyche, emotions, assests, and flaws will simply disappear because they have been molded as a soldier. We can NEVER expect them to be LESS than human. I wish everyone commenting on the story about Miss Whiteside could understand that the military is just one big machine. Machines can’t “think”. Machines are only programed to respond to what is in the code. God save the individuals who fall outside the “normal” boundries. My prayers are with her and all of the people stuck in the crack.

    By the way, the people who had exemplary assests that aren’t deconstructed are probably the ones that go on to be labeled as “heroes”. The people that are desconstructed and fall within the normal boundries will serve (and perhaps die) but never be labeled as a hero. Too bad the heroes get a medal, the “normies” get an honorable discharge with benefits, and the others (like Ms. Whitehead & her friend) get nothing, not even medical benefits.

    Maybe it’s different if you were never in the service. Maybe it’s different if you were in the service, did you time and came home. But let me tell you… it’s a whole new ball game when it’s YOUR child over there. YOUR husband. YOUR brother/sister. It’s kind of like funerals. The person that died could care less what coffin we pick, flowers, music, etc. They’re dead. Funerals are for the living to grieve. When it’s YOUR loved one serving overseas and you know there’s a real possibility they may not come home intact, see if you don’t think about this differently.


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