Like many Iraq combat vets, Mark Siegel had trouble coping back home.
So the Army kicked him out.
By Nina Shapiro
Published on September 24, 2008
Private First Class Mark Siegel set out on his first patrol in Iraq
with a bad feeling in the air. The Army road on which he and fellow
soldiers in the Fort Lewis–based 4th Stryker Brigade were traveling
had two known hot spots for Improvised Explosive Devices. Others on
the team had patrolled the road many times before without incident,
but they couldn't help worrying that their luck was running out.
Their convoy of four eight-wheel-drive combat vehicles, called
strykers, drove through the forestlands of the north, a topography
different from the desert that covers much of Iraq. With Siegel
riding in the rear of the lead stryker, making sure nobody approached
from behind, they warily passed the first IED hot spot. Nothing. As
they approached the second, they paused. "We moved forward about an
inch and boom," Siegel recalls. As the IED hit, he closed his eyes.
"When I opened them, it was all smoky. I looked around and saw fire.
I remember hearing someone scream, 'Climb out through the air guard
hatch.'" That's the opening at the top of the stryker.
He did and took a breath, reassuring himself that he was alive. The
team leader was not so lucky. Siegel had caught a glimpse of him
engulfed by flames in the stryker, "burning like a candle." Siegel
says he himself suffered a concussion, smoke-inhalation burns, and
other injuries. He was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) as well, he says.
Shortly after the incident, the Army transported him back to Fort
Lewis, where on May 28 he became one of approximately 20,000 Iraq War
veterans so far to receive a Purple Heart.
Less than a month later, Siegel was escorted off the same Army base
and instructed to sign a document stipulating that he could not
return. He had been kicked outor in military parlance,
"administratively separated"due to a urinalysis that revealed the
presence of cocaine. As a result, he lost a host of benefits he might
have otherwise received, including military-provided health care,
disability pay, and eligibility for the GI Bill.
Siegel is one of numerous combat veterans being penalized after
turning to drugs and alcohol or acting out in other ways. The Army
and Navy discharged 3,300 people for drug use alone in the 2007
fiscal year (which ended September 2007) . (The two military branches
did not supply figures for how many of those people had served in
Iraq or Afghanistan.) Fort Lewis released nearly 200 soldiers for
drug use in the first 10 months of the 2008 fiscal yearalmost twice
the number that it did in 2003, the year the Iraq War began.
The military's approach troubles many people inside and outside the
Armed Forces. They maintain that soldiers who are having trouble
coping with their wartime experiencesoften because of medical
conditions like PTSD and traumatic brain injuryare being disciplined
rather than helped.
"Nobody's saying [substance-abusing soldiers] should stay in," says
Bart Stichman, co-director of the Washington, D.C.–based National
Veterans Legal Services Program, which recently started an initiative
to aid combat veterans facing misconduct discharges. "The question
is: What kind of benefits should they have?" Stichman and others
assert that the military should ensure that physically and mentally
damaged soldiers are set up with medical care and other assistance.
"If you've honorably served in the war, then we owe you the
assistance you need when you come home," adds Steve Robinson, a
longtime veterans' activist who currently works for a Colorado-based
organization called ONE Freedom that provides training on
Colby Vokey, a retired lieutenant colonel who until recently
supervised the Marine Corps' defense attorneys (kind of like public
defenders in the civilian world) along the West Coast, puts it this
way: "We send the soldier to Iraq. We break him. We have an
obligation, at least, to fix him."
Siegel grew up in New York City. He wrote short stories and poetry
and learned to play the flute, saxophone, trumpet, and guitar, among
other instruments. After high school, he got a degree in computer
networking and security from a vocational school. He then bounced
around various tech-support jobs and had a falling-out with his
parents. "I wasn't doing anything with my life," he says.
So at 22 he joined the Army. "It felt like I was getting my life back
on track," he says.
He made a good impression upon arriving in Iraq in October 2007.
"When Mark first got there, he was a good soldier," recalls
Shenandoah Reynolds, a 30-year-old sergeant in the 4th Brigade who
served alongside Siegel both in Iraq and at Fort Lewis. "He was
gung-ho. He did everything right. He showed the proper respect and
A month later came the stryker explosion. Siegel says he struggled
over the next couple of months as he continued his Iraq deployment.
"Because I had banged up my knee, it was hard for me to keep up with
my duties," he recalls. Plus he was obsessed with the notion that he
was going to die. In January the Army transported him for medical
care to Landstuhl, Germany, where he was judged sick enough to send
home. Back at Fort Lewis, he says he received a diagnosis of TBI and
PTSD. (Fort Lewis spokesperson Joseph Piek says he cannot discuss
Siegel's medical information for privacy reasons. He did confirm the
stryker incident, Siegel's Purple Heart, and details of his military
service in Iraq, which Piek described as "honorable.")
Siegel saw a therapist on base once a week, but was still deeply
troubled. "My entire body was convulsing and shaking almost daily,"
he says. And he says he couldn't sleep. Not at all.
By the time he went home to New York on a two-week leave in March, he
was exhausted. Finally he fell asleep. "But every time I closed my
eyes, the blast kept replaying in my head," he says. He had visions
of the enflamed stryker and the team leader he watched burn.
"I'd fall asleep and five minutes later I'd wake up. So I started
drinking to see if I could black out without having any dreams. It
didn't work out that well. I wasn't able to get drunk. So I figured,
hey, if I'm not sleeping, I might as well stay awake." That was
another way of avoiding the dreams, he figured.
He turned to an old bad habit: cocaine. He says he had used the drug
before joining the Army, but had been clean for a year and a half.
The day he got back to Fort Lewis he had a urinalysis, which came up positive.
"I understand that I fucked up," he said a month later by phone. "I
got an Article 15 for it, that I have no problem with." An Article 15
refers to an Army regulation that allows commanders to discipline
soldiers without a court-martial. Siegel was booted down from a
private first class to a private. He lost a month's pay, and for a
time his movements were restricted to his barracks and a few other
places on base.
Siegel was more upset by the news that he was going to be discharged
and by the constant hassling he says he was getting from his
superiors. He maintains that they were trying to push him until he
snapped in order to build as strong a case as possible for a
discharge, a decision that rested with the brigade commander. He
claims they reprimanded him for little things, like an athlete's-foot
problem he had, and required him to do onerous tasks, such as mow the
lawn with a push mower. They also leaned on him, he says, when he
hesitated to do things that were hard for him because of his injured
knee, like moving furniture. By his own account, he was in return
"abrasive and confrontational," and quite possibly wasn't pulling his weight.
After one scrap with a sergeant who yelled at him for disappearing to
make phone calls, he says he was ordered to check in at a central
desk every hour. That day in May, Siegel, who often seemed morose
during several months of conversations, sounded particularly
despondent. "It's just getting really difficult," he said.
"Mark was treated like a complete piece of crap," affirms Reynolds.
The problem, he says, is that "a lot of people thought Mark was just
Reynolds knows firsthand how war-time trauma can cripple a man. After
two tours in Iraq, a number of near-death experiences (such as
stepping on a land mine that broke instead of blowing up), and the
loss of many friendsincluding an entire squad of 14 people whom he
had trained withhe finally lost it in a hotel room in Connecticut.
He had gone there to visit his wife, which did not go well. He downed
28 Percocets and a quarter-bottle of rum, and got into a fight with
the police who came to save him after being alerted by someone
Reynolds had called to say goodbye to. He eventually was hospitalized
and returned to Fort Lewis, where he also has had a hard time coping.
At one time he was so spooked by the noise and the crowds on base, so
convinced that somebody was out there waiting to get him, that he
says he needed a few drinks in him just to walk around.
Reynolds saw the way Siegel went from being a good soldier in Iraq to
one barely functioning. After the stryker explosion, Reynolds bunked
next to Siegel. "He was only sleeping one or two hours a day,"
Reynolds says. "He would just sit there and stare at the ceiling."
Piek, the Fort Lewis spokesperson, won't comment on Siegel's
discipline in detail, except to point to an Army policy that mandates
the initiation of a "separation" proceeding whenever drug use is
discovered. While soldiers can also be kicked out for alcohol abuse
and the resulting behavior, the military takes a harsher stance on
drugs, citing their illegality.
As Piek notes in a written statement, however, the start of such a
procedure "does not automatically equate with actual separation."
Commanders are given leeway to decide whether or not to go through
with the discharge. He declines to comment on why Siegel's commander
decided that a discharge was the right course in this case.
Army policy also requires that soldiers who test positive for drugs
be referred to substance-abuse programs on the base. "Every effort is
made to help a soldier rehabilitate," says Lt. Col. George Wright, an
Army spokesperson based at the Pentagon.
Yet Siegel says he was never referred to the substance-abuse program
at Fort Lewis.
"It may not always happen," admits Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a
top psychiatrist for the Army's Medical Department in Falls Church,
Virginia. "One of the problems is that we don't have enough drug and
alcohol counselors. We're trying to hire more." The Army Substance
Abuse Program at Fort Lewis, operating out of the Madigan Army
Medical Center on base, employs 17 counselors, according to Madigan
spokesperson Sharon Ayala. She says that number is "sufficient," but
allows that plans are in the works to hire four more.
Siegel says he didn't particularly want counseling, since he saw his
drug use as a momentary relapse. And these programs are "a
double-edged sword" for soldiers anyway, notes former Marine defense
attorney Vokey. Everything a soldier says about his drug and alcohol
habits can be used against him in separation proceedings.
In any case, Siegel got something of a break in the end. There are
three types of administrative discharges: honorable, "general under
honorable conditions," and "other than honorable." A soldier facing a
drug charge can receive the worst of the three, which may result in
their being stripped of access to health care from the federal
Department of Veterans Affairs (or VA). Siegel received the second type.
But while he retains VA coverage, he lost out on the possibility of
military-provided health insurance, which would have allowed him to
see ordinary civilian doctors, and which covers not only a soldier
(for life), but also his wife and kids. This insurance is generally
provided to military personnel who "medically retire." PTSD is
grounds for such a retirement. Before the drug charge, Siegel had
initiated the evaluation process that determines whether a soldier's
condition warrants a medical retirement. When his urinalysis came up
positive, however, that process came to a halt and his discharge
Siegel's discharge also means the loss of education benefits under
the GI Bill and no possibility of monthly disability payments from
the military. That's apart from losing normal retirement benefits,
including a pension, that soldiers otherwise receive if they serve 20
years. Mike Colson, a retired Navy commander who coordinates outreach
to War-on-Terrorism veterans for the Seattle Vet Center, says he's
seen "people 16, 18 years in [the military] losing their benefits" by
getting discharged for errant behavior after coming back from Iraq or
While he sympathizes with their plight, he also understands the
military's position, he says. "There are standards of behavior," he
says, "and those standards need to be enforced."
Extensive scientific literature, dating back years, points to the
relationship between PTSD, substance abuse, and other behavioral
problems. Dr. Andrew Saxon, director of the addiction program at VA
Puget Sound, points to one 1987 study in The New England Journal of
Medicine which found that men with PTSD, including Vietnam veterans,
were five times as likely to abuse drugs as others, and nearly twice
as likely to be alcoholics. Describing the classic PTSD symptoms, he
says those afflicted might have "unpleasant, unbidden memories, they
might have nightmares, their heart might start to race, or they might
react physiologically and physically to something in the environment
like loud noises. You can imagine if you have those symptoms, it's
easy to reach for alcohol or obtain other drugs that temporarily help
Captain Robert Koffman, acting director of psychological health for
Navy Medicine, affirms that PTSD often brings with it other medical
disorders like substance abuse. "Self-medication is typically what we
see," he says.
But the military has not fully figured out what to do with that
knowledge. "It is a subject of very active debate," says retired
Captain William Nash, a psychiatrist now working as a consultant to
the Marine Corps' Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological
Health in Rosslyn, Va. "I think the issues are: Where does one draw
the line in terms of responsibility and culpability? To what extent
should a history of exposure to combat stress, or a diagnosis of
PTSD, be considered mitigation?" Nash notes that "legally, as long as
someone is not insane," they're considered responsible for their
misdeeds. And, he says, if all combat veterans who misbehave were
excused from punishment because of the trauma they've experienced,
"it would really take away from all the other soldiers and Marines
who went through those stressors and for whatever reason did not get
Still, Nash says, "Justice requires that whoever it is making the
decision really honestly takes into account all the factors
involved." At a minimum, he says, any uncharacteristic behavior
should be treated as a red flag that mental-health issues might be
involved. He thus successfully urged the Marines to begin screening
such individuals for PTSD and other disorders before going through
with discharge proceedings. As of May, the Army has adopted a similar policy.
But the Army and Marines left unresolved the critical question of
what to do after such a screening. "Whenever you have a medical
diagnosis and a disciplinary action, there needs to be a decision
made about which way to go forward," says Ritchie, the Army
psychiatrist. "The commander makes that final decision. In my
opinion, if [the medical diagnosis] is something severe, the case
should go to a medical board." That's the process of evaluating
soldiers to see if they qualify for a medical retirement.
But Nash points out that a discharge offers one thing to commanders
that the medical-retirement process does not: a "way faster" means of
getting rid of a troublesome soldier. "Somebody can be out on the
street in a week instead of nine months," he says. And as Siegel's
experience shows, soldiers are continuing to be discharged even with
diagnoses of PTSD in hand.
"I know there's been a lot of progress [in recognizing that combat
veterans need help]," says Reynolds, the Fort Lewis sergeant. "But
down at the unit level, where the soldiers are," it's as though these
troubled soldiers "are being swept under the rug."
The new mental-health screening "doesn't necessarily mean anything,"
says Vokey. "It doesn't mean the discharge proceeding stops, or they
treat you any differently." Adding to his skepticism is his past
experience. Marines would come into his office with "these horrific
stories," he says. One had a best friend killed before his eyes,
another's hand couldn't stop shaking as he talked to attorneys. About
a third to a half of the Marines facing discharges had PTSD or some
other mental disorder, he estimates.
Those diagnoses and experiences were "pretty much ignored," Vokey
says. He would hear arguments from commanders such as "I know PTSD is
a problem, but this guy did something wrong." And those were the
leaders who believed in PTSD. "Many people, including senior leaders,
did not," Vokey says.
Petty Officer Jermie Arnold says he ran up against the nonbelieving
kind. As in the Siegel case, Arnoldan Oregon native, 10-year veteran
of the Navy, and recipient of a Navy/Marine Corps Achievement
Medalis currently facing a discharge from the military on a drug
charge. He's now at the Naval Station San Diego awaiting a hearing.
In early 2003, Arnold and fellow sailors were at Camp Patriot in
Kuwait, where, he says, Saddam Hussein would aim missiles. At that
time, nobody knew if Iraq had chemical weapons or not. And so sirens
would go off warning troops to don their protective masks and suits.
At 12:07 one morning, the alarm went off, and Arnold couldn't find
his mask. "I'm running everywhere looking for it," he recalls.
"Somebody had grabbed mine." And then Arnold could see the sky light
up right above him.
Still without his mask, he remembers thinking "I don't know what I'm
going to do. I'm going to sit here and die."
He didn't. As he leaned backwards onto somebody else's cot and
prepared for the worst, he bumped into a mask, perhaps belonging to
the person who took his. He grabbed it and ran to a bunker, where he
says he spent the next six hours sweating in 120-degree heat, locked
in a suit that made it feel even hotter.
He was safe. But he says that since then, flashbacks of frantically
looking for his mask have caused him to wake up in a cold sweat.
Upon his return in the spring of 2003, he started drinking. Each day,
he says, "basically I was drinking an entire bottle of Black Velvet.
It made the day go better."
One night, after being transferred to the Naval Air Station in
Kingsville, Texas, he went to a college party off base and
encountered a guy shooting a cap gun. "I was freaking out," he
recalls. He left the party and went to a nearby grocery, where he
grabbed some shelves leaning against a wall, intending to use them on
the guy with the cap gun.
When a police officer on patrol spotted him, Arnold dropped the
shelves and started running, according to both his account and
Kingsville police records. The reporting officer filed charges of
burglary (for stealing the shelves) and evading arrest. (They were
eventually dropped for lack of evidence.)
Because of the incident, Arnold says he was called before a
disciplinary review board. Arnold says he told the boardmembers that
he suspected he had PTSD. It didn't go well, he claims. "They were
laughing and joking, telling me I didn't have PTSD, saying I was just
trying to get off the charges."
The regional Navy office that covers Kingsville said they could not
disclose information about Arnold's disciplinary proceedings for
His father, Tom Arnold, a former Border Patrol mechanic who lives in
the Portland suburbs, wrote every member of Congress he thought could
help. One, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, launched an inquiry with the
Navy, according to Tom Towslee, a spokesperson for the Senator.
Towslee says the Navy reported back that Arnold had gotten medical treatment.
Not so, according to Arnold. But the Navy did transfer him for a time
to a laid-back job at the Escondido Ranch, used by the Navy for
bombing practice as well as for recreation for its sailors.
Still, Arnold continued to have problems as he was deployed twice
more. Shortly before his third tour, he says he walked into his
chief's office and broke down crying. The chief sent him to a Navy
counseling center, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, according to
Arnold. But soon he was deployed again on the USS Pearl Harbor. After
an R&R stop in Thailand, he tested positive for cocaine.