Mentally Unfit, Forced to Fight

An investigative report into Henthorn's death contains statements indicating that Henthorn's "chain of command'' was aware that he had tried to harm himself in November 2004 -- by slashing his arm "intentionally, in a [horizontal] manner'' -- in the weeks leading up to his second deployment to Iraq, while he was stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas.

Then, soon after his deployment in December, a distressed Henthorn took his gun into a latrine in Kuwait and charged it, in what fellow soldiers feared was a suicide gesture. Although his superiors at the scene grabbed the weapon away, his platoon sergeant returned the gun the same day, after talking to Henthorn for about a half-hour, according to a sworn statement. The platoon's first lieutenant was notified, but there is no indication that Henthorn was referred for a mental health evaluation or counseling.

Eighteen days later, after crossing into Iraq with his unit, Henthorn finished what he had started.

"If you lock yourself in a latrine for 10 minutes with your gun and threaten to hurt yourself, you don't just get your gun back. You get relieved of duty and sent home,'' said Henthorn's father, Warren, who is still struggling to understand what happened to his only son.

"It's the same as Vietnam -- all they care about is the numbers in the field,'' he said. "That's all that matters, having the numbers.''

Ritchie insisted the military is working hard to prevent suicides, which she said is a challenge, given that soldiers have access to weapons.

"When you go back, in retrospect, there may be warning signs,'' she acknowledged.

Addressing The Courant's findings, she added, "What you don't see from that are the other cases that perhaps had the same warning signs and were kept in [the combat] theater and went on to do OK in their job.''

While they would not comment on particular cases, Ritchie and other military officials said they believe most commanders are alert to mental health problems and open to referring troubled soldiers for treatment. It is commanders, not medical professionals, who have final say over whether a troubled soldier is retained in the war zone.

"I think the majority of our commanders are very receptive,'' Ritchie said.

But some service members say commanders' sensitivity to mental health issues varies.

"As a practical matter, the quality ... of the military's mental health care professional is uneven,'' said Maj. Andrew Efaw, a judge advocate general officer in the Army Reserve who handled trial defense for soldiers in northern Iraq last year. "Likewise, the understanding of mental health issues by commanders may also be spotty.''

He said commanders weighing whether a service member should be retained have to be mindful of how their troops will perceive the decision.

"Your average commander doesn't want to deal with a whacked-out soldier. But on the other hand, he doesn't want to send a message to his troops that if you act up, he's willing to send you home,'' Efaw said.

Some troops and their families say the military has not made good on its pledge to make mental health care easily accessible in the field.

Summer Lipford of Statesville, N.C., said she urged her son, Pfc. Steven Sirko, to talk to a counselor in April of last year, after he complained in a phone call from Iraq that he was having nightmares, losing weight and not sleeping.

"I asked Steven, `If you're having dreams that are so [messed] up, why don't you go talk to somebody?''' Lipford recalled. "He said, `Yeah, Mom, like that's gonna happen.' He said it was an act of God to get to see somebody.''

Four days later, Sirko, a 20-year-old medic, injected himself with vecuronium, an anesthetic that causes muscular paralysis, and died of an accidental overdose, according to what the military has told Lipford.

Some returning troops acknowledge that their own fear of being stigmatized kept them from seeking psychological help during deployments. Despite the military's efforts to improve mental health care, soldiers' perceptions of a stigma associated with seeking such care remained unchanged between 2004 and 2005, with more than half of the soldiers surveyed by Army teams expressing concerns that they would be viewed as weak.

Matthew Denton, a Camp Pendleton Marine and helicopter mechanic, said he spent most of his six-month deployment in 2005 quietly contemplating his own death aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf.