A soldier bat­tling PTSD seeks help —and re­ceives dis­ci­pline

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ian Dun­can

Since re­turn­ing from his sec­ond de­ploy­ment to Afghanistan, Army Spc. Scott Miller had suf­fered men­tal health prob­lems and had been through sev­eral stays at a hospi­tal. But after Christ­mas, his thoughts about tak­ing his own life were joined by new ones about killing mem­bers of his unit.

Miller, a he­li­copter me­chanic from Bowie, sought help in the emer­gency room at the hospi­tal on his post at Fort Camp­bell, Ky. He says he re­vealed his thoughts so that he could get the treat­ment he thought he needed.

He even­tu­ally was di­ag­nosed with post­trau­matic stress disor­der. But his words trig­gered a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and a lengthy dis­ci­plinary process that ended with him stripped of his rank on his way out of the ser­vice.

“I didn’t threaten any­body di­rectly,” Miller said. “I was there to try and get help, and I was hon­est with the be­hav­ioral health Pfc. Scott Miller of Bowie, shown with his fam­ily, was dis­ci­plined after he re­turned from a sec­ond tour in Afghanistan and told doc­tors he was think­ing of killing him­self and others.

provider. I know that I’m not go­ing to get any bet­ter if I’m not hon­est with my feel­ings and thoughts.”

The Depart­ment of De­fense, try­ing to ad­dress the men­tal health needs of troops bat­tered by years at war, has long en­cour­aged those who are suf­fer­ing to seek help — a chal­lenge in a mil­i­tary cul­ture that val­ues strength, tough­ness and self-suf­fi­ciency.

Of­fi­cials have run cam­paigns aimed at bat­tling the stigma sur­round­ing men­tal health care in the mil­i­tary and as­sur­ing troops that akc­knowl­edg­ing they need help won’t nec­es­sar­ily end their ca­reers.

But Miller’s case il­lus­trates the lim­its to those ef­forts and the chal­lenges that con­front com­man­ders who are faced with men­tally ill troops.

Nei­ther Miller’s unit nor the hospi­tal where he sought help would com­ment on his case. Both cited pri­vacy rules.

A spokes­woman for Blanch­field Army Com­mu­nity Hospi­tal said sol­diers are en­cour­aged to come for­ward be­fore prob­lems in­ter­fere with their ca­reer. Com­man­ders are trained to help troops with men­tal health prob­lems, spokes­woman Laura Boyd said.

When in­di­vid­ual sol­diers face chal­lenges, she said, com­man­ders meet to de­velop strate­gies.

“We stress to our sol­diers of all ranks that seek­ing be­hav­ioral health care is a sign of strength,” Boyd wrote in re­sponses to ques­tions. “Seek­ing treat­ment or ob­tain­ing help be­fore neg­a­tive out­comes oc­cur is key to main­tain­ing a healthy men­tal and emo­tional state.”

But Emily Blair, an ad­vo­cate at the Na­tional Al­liance on Men­tal Ill­ness, said the De­fense Depart­ment still has much work to do.

“I would say the cul­ture right now un­for­tu­nately is very stig­ma­tiz­ing,” Blair said. “We’ve barely scratched the sur­face.”

Lt. Col. Jay Thoman, the Army lawyer who rep­re­sented Miller in his dis­ci­plinary pro­ceed­ings, said he was un­able to find other cases in which hospi­tal staff aided a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion or a com­man­der took dis­ci­plinary ac­tion over some­thing a soldier said to a med­i­cal provider.

“Over­all, the Army is very con­cerned about PTSD and do­ing the right thing and tak­ing care of its sol­diers,” Thoman said. “And when a chain of com­mand takes the ac­tion they did in this case, it sets the Army’s ef­forts back.”

Miller joined the mil­i­tary late. He’d been in the Ju­nior Re­serve Of­fi­cer Train­ing Corps at North­ern High School in Owings in Calvert County. But after grad­u­at­ing in 2002, he went on to col­lege, mar­ried and started a fam­ily. It wasn’t un­til he lost one of two jobs he was work­ing in 2011 that he de­cided to en­list.

Miller was sent to Ok­la­homa to train to work on the Army’s Apache at­tack he­li­copters. There was much to learn, Miller said, but he didn’t find the ma­te­rial too dif­fi­cult, and he was ex­cited to get one of his first-choice as­sign­ments: with an avi­a­tion brigade at­tached to the famed 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion.

Days con­sisted of work­outs in the morn­ing fol­lowed by hours work­ing on the he­li­copters — fig­ur­ing out what was wrong with the con­trols or elec­tron­ics or weapons sys­tems.

“I like prob­lem-solv­ing,” Miller said. “I had to fig­ure out ex­actly what com­po­nent was wrong or where some­thing was broke, and fix it from there.”

Miller’s men­tal health prob­lems be­gan in 2012, when he de­ployed to a re­mote for­ward base in Afghanistan known as “Rocket City.”

“The flight lines where all the he­li­copters were and our liv­ing area were the main tar­get of all the [Tal­iban] rocket fire,” he said.

One in­ci­dent in par­tic­u­lar stuck with Miller. Just be­fore he and his unit were due to re­turn home, he said, a rocket struck and killed two of­fi­cers from the unit that was ar­riv­ing to re­place them.

Miller said he still has the pam­phlet from the memo­rial ser­vice at the base.

“I can’t be­lieve I made it nine months,” he said. “They didn’t even make it a week.”

Miller said it was dif­fi­cult to read­just to life in the United States. He had trou­ble sleep­ing and was wary of crowds. All he wanted to do was sit around the house.

Miller’s wife in­ter­vened, he said, and he went into coun­sel­ing. It helped.

Then, in 2015, he was de­ployed again to Afghanistan.

Feli­cia Miller said her hus­band came back from that sec­ond de­ploy­ment a dif­fer­ent per­son.

His time over­seas had been cut short. He ran into med­i­cal prob­lems, and the Army sent him home after less than two weeks.

In Oc­to­ber, Miller went into in-pa­tient treat­ment at a civil­ian fa­cil­ity near Fort Camp­bell for the first time. He was in an and of the hospi­tal sev­eral times through­out the rest of the year, un­til in late De­cem­ber, when some­thing changed: The thoughts he had had about killing him­self were joined by thoughts of harm­ing other peo­ple.

On Dec. 29, Miller told his wife how she was feel­ing. She quickly found a baby sit­ter and they be­gan the 40-minute drive to the hospi­tal.

Feli­cia Miller re­mem­bers talk­ing to her hus­band all the way, mak­ing sure he was fo­cused, and try­ing to keep flash­backs at bay

At the hospi­tal, Scott Miller told a li­censed clin­i­cal so­cial worker how he was feel­ing. She warned him that if he con­tin­ued, she would have to re­port him. Miller said he pressed on.

“I just de­scribed what I was think­ing, how I was feel­ing,” he said. “I was just be­ing hon­est be­cause I knew that my thoughts and feel­ings weren’t cor­rect.”

In a state­ment to po­lice that night, the so­cial worker said Miller threat­ened to hurt three mem­bers of his unit.

“I would hit them with a steel pipe,” she said he told her.

The hospi­tal would not make the so­cial worker avail­able to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

Boyd, the hospi­tal spokes­woman, de­clined to com­ment on the so­cial worker’s ac­tions, but said the law re­quires health care providers to warn law en­force­ment and po­ten­tial vic­tims when threats are made.

Boyd said the le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ity in­cludes co­op­er­at­ing with po­lice. But Thoman, Miller’s lawyer, ques­tioned whether the so­cial worker had to give a sworn state­ment.

That state­ment formed the ba­sis of the dis­ci­plinary case against Miller.

After the con­ver­sa­tion with the so­cial worker, he was ad­mit­ted for more in­pa­tient treat­ment. When he was re­leased in Jan­uary, he was served le­gal pa­pers.

Miller was trans­ferred out of his com­pany. In May, his new cap­tain sum­moned him to his of­fice to fi­nal­ize his pun­ish­ment. The cap­tain found Miller guilty of vi­o­lat­ing mil­i­tary law and re­duced his rank from spe­cial­ist to pri­vate first class.

Miller said he was told that his com­man­ders de­cided they needed to make an ex­am­ple out of him to de­ter other peo­ple from be­hav­ing like he did.

But he thinks all his case would serve to do is put other sol­diers off get­ting men­tal health treat­ment.

“They try to put out that there’s no stigma about it,” Miller said. “But there is. It’s still there.”

“They try to put out that there’s no stigma about it. But there is. It’s still there.”


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