AWOL Soldier Refusing Deployment Because of Severe PTSD

"I am just trying to get help," insisted Jeff Hanks,
active duty US Army infantryman, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"My goal in this situation is to simply heal. And they wonder why there
are so many suicides." Jeff spoke rapidly over the phone from Virginia,
where he, his wife and his two young daughters are staying while he is
AWOL from the military. Days earlier, Jeff had walked out of an airport,
refusing to board a plane headed for Kuwait, which was to be his first
stop on his way back to Afghanistan.

During his mid-September leave from his second combat tour with the
101st Airborne Division, Jeff sought help from Fort Bragg and Fort
Campbell military doctors for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and
physical wounds sustained in battle. Yet, just as his treatment was
getting started, his command interfered, insisting that his military
health care providers grant him clearance for immediate deployment. His
providers acquiesced, even though they had not completed preliminary

Jeff, who has trouble being in large crowds of people and difficulty
controlling his anger, says he is in no state to deploy back to the war
from which he is still struggling to heal. The 30 year-old soldier
decided that his only choice was to go AWOL. Jeff plans to turn himself
into his command at Fort Campbell on Veterans Day, November 11. He will
be accompanied by supporters, including members of Iraq Veterans Against
the War.

As the war in Afghanistan stretches into its tenth year, now the longest
war in US history, Jeff's story has become all too familiar in a
military that is overextended and exhausted, pushing soldiers beyond
their mental and physical capacities in order to fill the ranks. The
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked by staggering rates of
trauma and suicide. Between 20 percent and 50 percent of all service
members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered PTSD.[1]
Suicide rates among active duty service members are twice as high as
that of the civilian population and veterans with PTSD are six times
more likely to attempt suicide.[2]

In response to these developments, Iraq Veterans Against the War have
launched a campaign - Operation Recovery - calling for an end to the
deployment of traumatized troops. This 2,000-strong organization,
comprised of veterans and active duty troops who have served since
September 11, 2001, insists that Jeff's situation is not isolated, but
rather, has become endemic to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Many troops currently deployed to combat theater suffer from
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury [TBI] and
Military Sexual Trauma," says Jason Hurd, a former soldier who served in
Iraq and is active in the Operation Recovery Campaign. "We find this
situation unacceptable and demand an end to these inhumane deployments."

Mental and Physical Wounds

Jeff, who grew up in Beebe, Arkansas, deployed to Iraq in 2008, a tour
that eventually earned him a Combat Infantry Badge. During his time in
Iraq, Jeff saw "the most brutal things of any of his deployments," he
says. "It really bothered me. I think about it all the time." Jeff's
Iraq deployment was marked by stressful combat patrols that kept him
"always on edge." In 2008, he was witness to the aftermath of a car bomb
explosion in a crowded marketplace in Balad, Iraq. It resulted in what
he describes as "mass casualties." He saw one little girl, the age of
his oldest daughter at the time, who had been gravely injured by the
bomb, but still alive. "I can still see that little girl," he says. "I
dream about her to this day."

Jeff says that he and others in his unit were not given adequate care
for the mental wounds they sustained in battle, with mental health
professionals only coming for short visits once a month. He describes
his only experience seeing a therapist in Iraq: "It was a total joke,"
he says. "The guy just sat there and wrote stuff down and nothing ever
came of it."

Jeff tells of one person in his unit who developed a severe drinking
problem during his tour. "I know it stemmed from stuff he saw in Iraq,"
says Jeff. The command never pursued mental counseling of any kind for
him. They told us not to speak to him and they eventually just kicked
him out. He probably didn't get disability pay or anything."

"When I came home from Iraq I changed a lot. I noticed I had a lot of
anger problems and I couldn't sleep," says Jeff. Family and friends
noticed as well, and Jeff's coldness and distance began to eat away at
his marriage, says his wife Christina. "When he came back from Iraq, he
would look at me so cold. There was nothing in his eyes. That was the
thing that bothered me the most. He was so unlike himself. The old Jeff
used to joke around, he used to go out and socialize." The couple
separated and Christina was left alone to raise their two daughters.

Jeff says that, back at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky, base where he was
stationed, suicide was a widespread problem among the 101st Airborne
Division. "There were multiples suicide attempts on base in Kentucky.
For a while, we were having people kill themselves every other day,"
says Jeff.

After serving in Iraq, Jeff was deployed to Afghanistan May 3 of this
year. "In Afghanistan, there is more of a constant threat than there is
in Iraq," says Jeff, describing a deployment defined by constant mortar
attacks, unclear missions and low morale among US soldiers. "We had no
clear mission and nothing got done. We basically just sat in a valley
waiting to get hit," he says. In one incident, five US soldiers were hit
by a roadside bomb. "One died for sure and I don't know about the
rest," says Jeff. "We had to sit on base and wait for them to be
stabilized. We heard them screaming. It stuck with me. You can never get
rid of that sound."

Jeff says that, like Iraq, medical treatment in Afghanistan was scarce
and inadequate. "Combat stress people hardly ever came to the base. And
it is hard to talk in a situation like that, since you are still in the
war and on edge all the time," he says. On top of limited resources,
people in Jeff's unit were teased and belittled when they asked for
mental or physical health care. One private, who was blown back into a
building after a mortar attack, complained of headaches and nausea to
his command. "He was made fun of by the command in front of everybody,"
he says. "There is a saying in the military: What, you got sand in your
vagina?" Jeff is certain that this dissuaded many who needed care from
seeking it. "It keeps you from seeking help. I didn't seek help. I
wanted to, but I would be ostracized."

Three weeks before going on leave from Afghanistan, a mortar went off
near Jeff, blowing him up against a wall. He still suffers severe
headaches from the incident.

Coming Home

When he went on leave from Afghanistan in mid-September, Jeff began to
notice how profoundly he had been affected by his combat experience. He
describes being seized with uncontrollable anger, having panic attacks
at the slightest stimuli and being unable to relate to his family and
loved ones.

Having reconciled with his wife Christina, he had been looking forward
to spending time with her and the kids. "I had been so excited to see my
family when I came home on leave," he says. "But when I was actually
around them, they were just completely overwhelming."

"My daughters see how much Jeff has changed," says Christina. My older
one says that daddy is not as nice as he used to be. She says 'I don't
like daddy anymore.'"

In one incident, when Jeff and Christina were
shopping at Walmart, Jeff was temporarily left alone when his wife went
browsing in a different aisle. "I freaked out. There were too many
people around me. I couldn't be left alone." Christina says she returned
to find Jeff frantically insisting that they leave immediately.

Jeff tells of being afraid to sleep in the same bed as his wife, concerned that he would attack her in his sleep.

One day, Hank was overwhelmed with anger when a police officer "copped
an attitude" toward his dad who had asked the officer for directions to a
baseball game. "It triggered something in me," says Jeff. "I really
wanted to hurt him."

"His mother has called me many times in tears about this," says Christina. "She knows her son and she knows he is different."

Jeff became concerned about whether he was fit for his imminent
deployment. "If you have trouble controlling your anger at home, what
are you going to do when you are in a situation holding a loaded
weapon?" he asks.

In the Raleigh, North Carolina, airport where he was to catch a plane to
Kuwait, Jeff had a panic attack in response to a stranger loudly
clapping his hands. "I freaked out and was just like I gotta go. I can't
do this," he says. Jeff walked out of the airport and checked himself
into the Fort Bragg Emergency Room, the nearest military hospital.

Jeff was told by Fort Bragg doctors that they could not diagnose
anything beyond the airport panic attack, because he was based out of
Fort Campbell. Jeff arranged to meet his Fort Campbell command, where he
was listed as AWOL for failing to board his plane. At Fort Campbell, he
was passed around to various social workers, who eventually scheduled
him an appointment with a mental health care doctor for Monday morning,
October 11, at the Fort Campbell Medical Center. However, the Thursday
before the appointment was to take place, Jeff's sergeant called him and
said he needed to get immediate clearance to go back to Afghanistan
that Friday, meaning he would never get to go to his scheduled
appointment. Jeff later found out that his command called his doctors
and order them to give him immediate clearance.

"I hadn't even been seen by a professional doctor," he says. "All I want
is treatment. They were the ones who sent me over there. Now they won't
even give me help when I need it." Jeff says he was determined to get
help one way or another: "At that point, my only option was to leave."

Jeff has since been diagnosed by two civilian psychiatric professionals
as having severe PTSD. He is currently weighing his options for meeting
his urgent mental health care needs.

A Widespread Problem

"The redeployment of traumatized troops is a horrible problem," says
Ethan McCord, a veteran whose unit was shown in the "Collateral Murder"
video distributed by WikiLeaks. "I was denied treatment for the mental
and physical wounds I sustained in battle, like so many others."

"In multiple units across all branches we're seeing commanders order
service members to the battlefield who just aren't serviceable, says
Chantelle Bateman, a former Marine who served in Iraq. "Rather than
repairing them, we are sacrificing their long term well-being, their
immediate safety and that of the people they are serving with."

As the wars drag on, veterans are demanding an end to the overextension
and redeployment of wounded soldiers. On October 7, the ninth
anniversary of the Afghanistan war, dozens of Iraq and Afghanistan
veterans marched from Walter Reed Medical Center to Capitol Hill in
Washington, DC, to announce Operation Recovery. A campaign statement
reads: "While we recognize that we must stop the deployment of all
soldiers in order to end the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we see
the deployment of soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,
Traumatic Brain Injuries and Military Sexual Trauma as particularly
cruel, inhumane and dangerous. Military commanders across all branches
are pushing service members far past human limits for the sake of
'combat readiness.' We cannot allow those commanders to continue to
ignore the welfare of their troops who are, after all, human beings."

According to the Department of Defense (DoD), even if a military medical
professional deems a service member unfit to deploy, a commanding
officer can waive medical evaluation and order the service member into
While the DoD is not forthcoming about the rate at which this occurs,
high rates of PTSD and multiple deployments suggest that cases like
Jeff's are common. Almost 30 percent of troops on their third deployment
suffer severe mental health problems. By 2008, nearly 33 percent of
troops had served two tours to Iraq or Afghanistan, while 10 percent had
served three tours, trends that can only increase as the war in
Afghanistan reaches its tenth year. Today over 11,000 troops have served
six tours, with each tour greatly increasing a service member's chances
of developing mental health problems, including PTSD, TBI and combat
stress, as well as military sexual trauma, caused by rape and sexual
assault from within the ranks.[4]

Top military brass acknowledges that suicides and violent crimes plague the military, with four combat veterans recently killing themselves
at Fort Hood, Texas, in one week, one of them a suspected
murder-suicide still under investigation. "The emergency issue for me
right now is the suicide issue," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking person in the US armed

The recently exposed kill team in Afghanistan, in which US troops hunted, killed and mutilated Afghan civilians, collecting their body parts as trophies, involved at least one soldier who was on a cocktail of medications for TBI.

"They are sending troops right back into the situation that traumatized
them before they have the time to heal," says McCord. It's ruining our
youth in the military. Operation Recovery is trying to stop this."

Jeff remains determined to get the mental and physical health care he
needs and is working with the Operation Recovery team of Iraq Veterans
Against the War and Courage to Resist to figure out how to meet his
immediate health care needs. "Five to ten years from now, these people
are not going to care about me. I don't want to be a basket case. I
don't want to go to a school play of my kid's and freak out in a big
crowd," he says. "I just want help and they want to send me back to war
instead of helping me."


1. Seal, K. H., Bertenthal, D., Maguen, S., Gima, K.,
Chu, A., and Marmar, C. R. (2008). "Getting beyond 'Don't ask; don't
tell': An evaluation of US Veterans Administration post-deployment
mental health screening of veterans returning from Iraq and
Afghanistan." American Journal of Public Health, 98, 714-720. See also
"Comparisons of PTSD rates" Journal of Traumatic Stress - Volume 23, Issue 1, February 2010.

2. "Suicide and PTSD," Department of Veterans Affairs; Armen Keteyian "Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans," CBS News, November 13 2007; and Mark Thompson "Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and the Military" CNN, August 22 2010.

3. DDI 1332.14(8)c Updated: March 29, 2010.

4. The Alaska Army National Guard: A "Tremendous Shortfall," a report of the Veterans For America National Guard Program, October 15, 2008 and Mark Thompson, "America's Medicated Army" Time, June 5, 2008.

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