WASHINGTON — In a nondescript conference room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside listened last week as an Army prosecutor outlined the criminal case against her. The charges: attempting suicide and endangering the life of another soldier while serving in Iraq.
Her hands trembled as Maj. Stefan Wolfe, the prosecutor, argued that Whiteside, now a psychiatric outpatient at Walter Reed, should be court-martialed. After seven years of exemplary service, the Army reservist faces the possibility of life in prison if she is tried and convicted.
Military psychiatrists at Walter Reed who examined Whiteside, 25, after she recovered from her self-inflicted gun wound diagnosed her with a severe mental disorder, possibly triggered by the stresses of a war zone. But Whiteside's superiors considered her mental illness "an excuse" for criminal conduct, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
At the hearing, Wolfe, who had warned Whiteside's lawyer of the risk of using a "psychobabble" defense, pressed a senior psychiatrist at Walter Reed to justify his diagnosis.
"I'm not here to play legal games," Col. George Brandt, chief of Behavioral Health Services in Walter Reed's Department of Psychiatry, responded angrily, according to a recording of the hearing. "I am here out of the genuine concern for a human being that's breaking and that is broken. She has a severe and significant illness. Let's treat her as a human being, for Christ's sake!"
In recent months, prodded by outrage over poor conditions at Walter Reed, the Army has made a highly publicized effort to improve treatment of Iraq veterans and change a culture that stigmatizes mental illness. The Pentagon has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to new research and to care for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. On Friday, it said it had opened a new center for psychological health in Arlington, Va.
But outside the Pentagon, the military still largely deals with mental-health problems in an ad-hoc way, often relying on the judgment of combat-hardened commanders whose understanding of mental illness is vague or misinformed.
The stigma around psychological wounds can be seen in the smallest of Army policies. While family members of soldiers recovering at Walter Reed from physical injuries are provided free lodging and a per diem to care for loved ones, families of psychiatric outpatients usually have to pay their own way.
Wolfe suggested the military court might not buy the mental-illness defense. "Who doesn't find psychobabble unclear ... how many people out there believe that insanity should never be a defense, that it is just ... an 'excuse.' "
A soul broken down by war attempting to take her own life is a tragedy. To prosecute her is flat out cruel and inhumane. I've got a piece of "psychobabble" for you, prosecutor Wolfe: Sociopathic sadistic fucks like you are an offense to the honor of America's veterans.