Skip to content Skip to footer

Over the Meds and Under the Hood

Pfc. Michael Kern attempted to hand the president a letter demanding the military overhaul its mental health system.

When President Obama visited Fort Hood to offer his condolences to victims of the November 5, 2009, shooting, the GI’s were told by their chain of command to line up for their chance to shake the president’s hand. One GI, Pfc. Michael Kern, a member of the Fort Hood chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), knew the president was coming.

Kern attempted to hand the president a letter written on behalf of the veterans’ organization demanding that the military radically overhaul its mental health care system and halt the practice of repeated deployment of the same troops. Although he couldn’t hand the letter directly to the president due to security reasons, the letter did arrive to him through the proper channels.

On January 15, 2010, Kern organized a protest outside the east gate entrance to the base that focused on the over-medicating of the soldiers stationed there and a lack of mental health resources and counseling. The protest, which lasted from 10 am to 5 pm, maintained approximately 30 people throughout the day as protesters rotated to avoid the cold and the rain.

The event was co-organized by Under the Hood Café, a local coffee house and outreach center that counsels soldiers coming back from war and offers basic services to GI’s in need, including referrals for counseling, legal advice and information on GI rights.

“If it wasn’t for Under the Hood, I’d be dead,” Kern said after the protest.

Under the Hood Café manager Cynthia Thomas said the coffee house concept originated in the 1960s during the GI movement against the Vietnam War. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas began working with IVAW to have a house near Fort Hood because it is the largest U.S. military base in the world. The Fort Hood Support Network helped Thomas to get a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the center, she said.

“The troops are over-medicated. We see it all the time. Post-traumatic stress disorder has been more serious, especially since the November 5 shooting,” she said.

Thomas said counselors sometimes have to drive GI’s to their appointments and to the base because they are so heavily medicated that they cannot drive themselves. Many have chronic migraines that keep them from driving, she said.

“On average, most of the soldiers I have talked to take 20 to 25 medications per day and some look as though they are in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease; some actually stumble from their meds,” Under the Hood counselor Matti Litaker said.

One active-duty soldier came back to the café after meeting the protesters outside Fort Hood . The 20-year-old GI, Mick, would only give his first name due to his active-duty status. Mick had suffered three concussions after coming too close to an Improvised Explosive Device in Iraq, and now has a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

“They expect you to be the perfect soldier and the perfect civilian,” he said. “The government expects us to be bipolar, to separate work life from home life.”

After Mick had received his TBI, he tried to “chapter out,” or leave the Army. He had a court date for an unrelated crime, and was expecting to get a discharge when his superior told him that he would make sure that Mick didn’t go to his court date so that he could stay in the Army. He said that he was hopeful because he could get “med-boarded” for his TBI and get a discharge.

Mick said he knew that another GI had been illegally deployed when he was 17 and that while he was in Iraq during the 2008 election, the absentee ballots for the soldiers vote did not come in until three weeks after they were supposed to be due back in the states.

“I don’t think we got to vote in that election,” he said. Kern backed up his account, saying that he too did not get his absentee ballot in time to vote in the 2008 election.

Kern said that he had joined the military with “hopes of doing right for all of humanity” and that he didn’t join for the money, but because he believed in the mission of the Army and the war. All of that changed when he killed a child in Iraq. After returning to the U.S., he was transferred to the Warrior Transition Brigade, where he saw many soldiers who were missing limbs and who were “messed up in the head.” He then found Under the Hood Café and joined the IVAW.

Shortly after confirming that Obama had received his letter, Kern wrote an email to the president outlining common GI concerns at Fort Hood. He told the president that he was planning on paying him a visit to talk about the issues on behalf of the IVAW, but after Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan he “realized [Obama] was the same as Bush.”

Kern is on many meds himself. He pulled out his current medications prescription list. There were a total of 47 different medications that had been prescribed to Kern within the last 180 days before January 15, 2010.

“If the Army asks, yeah I take it all, but I don’t really take it all,” he said.

Kern said he believes that the government and pharmaceutical companies are testing drugs on the soldiers in war. He said that the soldiers were given an H1N1 vaccine that had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that later on, after the GI’s had taken it, it was recalled. He also said that the Army is giving the soldiers Botox injections for their brain nerves, for pain, but that the procedure is not yet FDA approved.

Kern is currently working on a piece called “Creating an Activist,” which details his struggles overseas and as well as back home, both inside and outside the Army.

Hasan himself was a psychiatrist, prescribing meds to soldiers in order to make them “deployable,” and was about to be deployed to Afghanistan before the shooting. What happened on November 5, 2009, was truly devastating, but the event can serve as an eye-opener into the state of our soldiers and what the war has cost them. Could there be something more to the recent shooting other than simply Islamist extremism?

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.