Mental strain on troops comes into focus

A recently-published book about an Army Green Beret is sparking controversy in military circles about whether veterans are getting proper treatment for mental health.

The book centers on Army Major Jim Gant, who was stripped of his Special Forces tab, demoted, and forced to retire after commanders discovered he was drinking in a war zone and living with his girlfriend there.

ADVERTISEMENT

Gant’s critics say he broke basic war zone rules, but sympathizers say he was brought down by unsupportive superiors.

Some also say the book, American Spartan, should serve as a case study of the effect of a decade of multiple deployments and unconventional warfare on soldiers' mental health.

“The U.S. government chose to wage large-scale, protracted war in part by grinding down the best and the bravest until many of them died, broke, or fell from grace,” Joe Collins, a retired Army colonel, wrote in a recent book review. “Jim Gant’s fall is an object lesson for America and a warning to our nation’s leaders.” 

According to the book, written by Gant’s then-girlfriend and now wife, former Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson, Gant was already suffering after coming home from Iraq in 2007, where he endured heavy combat and was awarded a Silver Star. He was having violent nightmares, drinking all day, taking a mixture of speed, Valium and Percocet, and had used cocaine. Tyson helped him recover, but he never sought professional mental health support.

After he wrote an influential paper on how the Afghan war could be won using a new approach of enlisting tribes as local security forces, top military brass asked him to implement his idea on the ground. 

Gant then spent 22 months straight in Afghanistan.

Typically, for a 12-month deployment, soldiers get 15 days of leave, but Gant never took one.

While in Afghanistan, Gant was under considerable stress. He had to train conventional soldiers on his approach with very little time, due to a shortage of special forces units. 

He was also under pressure to show progress, before President Obama began to draw down forces. He wanted to make sure the Afghans he was training would be well situated before that happened.

He improvised and made numerous decisions that went against the Pentagon’s rules — such as arming Afghans with a heavy machine guns, and purchasing fuel directly for them and bypassing a slower process. 

“Did I break rules? Absolutely I did,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “I had decisions to make out there every single day. I didn’t always do what was right, but I did what I felt was best.” 

He and his forces also came under regular attack by the Taliban. One day, he was thrown from his vehicle after being hit by an IED and knocked unconscious. 

Gant’s mental well-being began to deteriorate. He took prescription sleeping pills, and one night, sleep-walked into the unit’s operations center in the Afghan compound where they were staying, picked up an AK-47, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. It was unloaded, but his troops were unnerved. His troops, too, were under immense stress. 

Gant’s tour came to a halt when one of his men alerted superiors that Gant smelled of alcohol. Gant was immediately escorted out of Afghanistan. Investigators found empty bottles of whisky in his room, prescription medication, and discovered that Tyson had been living with him.

Before that point, Gant said some of his commanders had been concerned about him, and at least one flew in to take a look at him.

“I said, ‘Sir, you cannot pull me out of here,’ and he gave me a big hug and said, ‘OK Jim, get back out there,’” Gant told The Hill. “I did not want to leave the fight. I did not want to leave my guys. I did not want to step away even for a second. But I needed someone to say keep going you can do this. Ann did that for me.” 

Back home, Gant’s mind was still on Afghanistan. One night, he wandered around Fort Bragg wearing Afghan clothes with a large wooden staff. Another night, Tyson found him curled into a ball next to a 9mm pistol, contemplating suicide, according to the book.  

“I know there are many soldiers and civilians that are facing the same thing,” Gant said. 

The Defense Department says it is working to help soldiers with problems get attention.

"We have worked hard to encourage service members with signs and symptoms of mental or behavioral health issues to seek mental health care,” said Army Col. Steve Warren.

This month, House lawmakers announced a proposal in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act to address suicide by special operations forces.

“Special operations forces have some unique challenges. They have unique responsibilities,” House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) said. “I’m concerned about their suicide rates.” 

Tyson said her goal was to document Gant’s mission, and that she hopes the book will be a case study for fighting a counterinsurgency war. 

“It tells you what is necessary to be successful,” she told The Hill. 

But, she added, “It also tells you about the toll and the commitment it takes on having people on the ground in remote areas who are 110 percent dedicated to the mission.”