Over the Meds and Under the Hood

Over the Meds and Under the Hood

Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s alleged brutal shooting of 13 GI’s stationed at the largest US military base, located just outside Killeen, Texas, drew sympathy from the national, state and military political establishments and reinforced a prejudice in the hearts and minds of many Americans.

The sure-fire coverage from the corporate media easily painted a picture of the story that would reinforce the War on Terror while leaving unanswered the deeper and more challenging questions about the state of US military establishments and the mental and emotional state of our young soldiers serving in those institutions. The Fort Hood shooting commanded an investigation into Hasan’s alleged connections to Islamic radicals, but was unable to probe the everyday standards and practices of the military base itself to find the hidden causes of GI strife.

Introspection is needed to objectively analyze the effects of the current political climate on our troops and see the hidden costs of war on our country in order to reconcile tendencies towards racism in public perception and to move on after this national trauma.

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, member of the Fort Hood chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, 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 overmedicating of the soldiers stationed there and the lack of mental health resources and counseling. The protest, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 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 1960’s during the GI movement against the Vietnam War. When the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas began working with Iraq Veterans Against the War to have a house near Fort Hood because it is the largest US 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 overmedicated. 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.

“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.” Kern said that he didn’t join the Army for the money, but because he believed in the mission of the Army and that when he joined he supported the war. All of that changed when he killed a child in Iraq. After he returned to the States 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 Iraq Veterans Against the War. Kern said that after he knew Obama had received the letter from the IVAW, he wrote an email to the president outlining many GI concerns. 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 FDA approved 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.

Could there be something more to the Fort Hood shooting than Islamist extremism? 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 for the state of the country, for the state of our soldiers, and for the state of the wars.