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Fort Carson report: Combat stress contributed to soldiers' crimes back home

TOM ROEDER Updated: July 15, 2009 at 12:00 am

Most Fort Carson soldiers who came home from war to commit murder had lives that were broken by combat stress, mental illness and drug and alcohol problems, a report released by the Army today says.

The report, commissioned by commanders last year after six 4th Brigade Combat Team soldiers were charged in murders in a 12-month period, says combat stress, and mental health issues found in the bulk of soldiers-turned-killers combined with a cocktail of substance abuse issues, including drug and alcohol abuse, that wasn't consistently addressed.

It will result in increased screening for soldiers who show signs of trouble, policy changes and a series of Army studies at Fort Carson and elsewhere to better determine what eight years of war have done to troops. But the study reached no conclusions that showed a direct cause-and-effect relationship that led to the killings.

Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general, said while no one factor accounts for the violence, several causes contributed to the cluster, including substance abuse, mental illness and failures of leadership.

"Those three in combination are a really toxic mix," he said at a Fort Carson news conference.

The toxic mix left a death toll in Colorado.

  • Judilianna Lawrence, 19, was raped and killed by a soldier last October, prosecutors charge.
  • In June 2008, Cesar Ramirez Ibanez, 21, and Amairany Cervantes, 18, were mowed down with an AK-47. A soldier is charged.
  • In December, 2007, Spc. Kevin Shields was shot to death on the city's west side. Three soldiers are in prison for that.
  • A few months earlier, Pfc. Robert James was shot to death in a robbery. Two soldiers are doing time for it.
  • Before that, a taxi driver in Pueblo was gunned down by a Fort Carson GI who has since been convicted.
  • Another soldier is doing 30 years behind bars for gunning down an alleged drug dealer in a botched robbery.
  • One killed his infant.
  • One killed a friend with a fire poker.
  • Another killed his wife and then himself.

"Soldiers allegedly involved in crimes related to homicide at Fort Carson from 2005-2008 were, in retrospect, at risk for engaging in violent behavior based on a clustering of known risk factors for violence, namely prior criminal behavior and psychopathology," the report found.

The study probed 14 homicides and attempted cases involving Fort Carson soldiers since 2005 and also used surveys and focus groups to examine attitudes at the post.

The report found that soldiers who see more combat and have more of their comrades killed may be more likely to find trouble when they come home.

"Survey data from this investigation suggest a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes," it said.

Army officials at a news conference today denied there was any connection between combat and crime.

They also played down the significance of the cluster of crimes, noting that most soldiers who come home from war don't commit violent crimes.

Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, the Army's top personnel officer, said a wider study of all Army violent crime shows that 65 percent of 2,726 cases since 2001 were committed by soldiers who hadn't been to war.

While the report found fault with commanders, particularly in failing to get help for soldiers for drug abuse and mental illness, the study itself will not result in any disciplinary action.

Rochelle said Army leaders may look into discipline at a later time.

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, Fort Carson's commander, said the study has already resulted in increased mental health training and more counseling for soldiers upon their return from war.

He said the post is also stepping up efforts to ensure that soldiers who test positive for drug use or exhibit signs of problem drinking will get substance abuse counseling and treatment.

"We are training and educating our soldiers and leaders," he said.

The study found that 11 of the suspects had documented drug or alcohol problems, but less than half had been sent to treatment as required by Army regulations.

"Data from the focus groups revealed a strong theme of soldiers using alcohol and drugs to 'self-medicate'; soldiers also perceived inconsistent discipline for substance abuse, positive drug tests and misconduct," the report found.

The study also found that 10 of the 14 soldiers involved in violent crimes at Fort Carson had been diagnosed with mental illness, including nine who were prescribed medication for their symptoms.

Much of the study focused on 4th Brigade, home unit to most of the violent crime suspects.

4th Brigade was compared head-to-head with 3rd Brigade, which recently returned from Iraq.

The 4th Brigade, now in Afghanistan, has suffered a higher casualty rate than other units its size in two deployments, the Army found, losing lives at a rate more than eight times that of 3rd Brigade.

Along with the deaths came intense combat that took a mental toll on troops, the Army found. Soldiers in 4th Brigade were more likely than other soldiers to suffer mental illness.

The study also found, though, that soldiers feel their careers can be damaged by seeking mental health help and too often feel that enlisted leaders don't support troops with mental illness.

"Stigma and lack of referral to the Army Substance Referral Program for required substance abuse screening were important barriers to soldiers," the report said, noting those issues prevented 4th Brigade soldiers from getting help for problems that are known to contribute to violent behavior.

The 4th Brigade also saw a higher percentage of its soldiers kicked out for conduct reasons. During its most recent deployment, the brigade mustered out 26 soldiers for every 1,000 in its ranks for violating rules.

The report found that while three of the 14 Fort Carson soldiers examined were allowed into the Army only after they obtained waivers for past conduct, the reduction of enlistment standards that came with the war was not a significant factor in the homicides. But the report did find that soldiers who had to get conduct waivers to enter Army service are up to three times more likely to commit misconduct in uniform or abuse drugs.

Rochelle said the Army after an earlier investigation has tightened standards on allowing people with a history of drug and alcohol problems into the service.

"The Army’s support for our service men and women is falling short and we need to do better," Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said after the report was released. "This situation is unacceptable for our troops, untenable for military families and communities, and incompatible with our priorities as a nation."

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