Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another Noncombat Death in Iraq -- And More Lies for a Mother and the Media

Yes, full investigations must be carried out, but usually the essence of the full truth could have been communicated early on. When delayed, it can seem like -- or actually is -- a "coverup" of an accident or shooting that should have been prevented.

By Greg Mitchell (November 18, 2008) --

Battle fatalities are way down in Iraq, thank goodness (though not in Afghanistan), but many U.S. troops are still passing away in "noncombat" ways, via accidents, friendly fire, suicides and so on. And in those cases, parents or spouses (and the press) are still often misled or lied to for days or weeks or months before the truth of how they died comes out -- in the local media.

Here is today's horror story, involving Sgt. Mason Lewis of Virginia. A year ago, the military told his mom he had died in a fall. By implication: his fault.

Yesterday a local TV outlet reported that the official probe has belatedly revealed: "Army investigators discovered a poorly maintained bucket loader with no brakes and sluggish hydraulics, operated by an inexperienced crew, led to Mason's death."

Flash back to one year ago tomorrow, on November 19, 2007, and a Washington Post article beginning: "Lisa Lewis had a bad feeling when her son Mason was getting ready to ship out to Iraq for his second tour last May. She prayed and she prayed, but she couldn't shake it. And then the news that she had been dreading finally came. Sgt. Mason L. Lewis was dead.

“Lewis, 26, of Gloucester, Va., died Friday in Baghdad as a result of a noncombat training mission, the Defense Department said yesterday. His mother said she was told that Lewis and nine other U.S. soldiers had been moved to a remote location to train Iraqi soldiers. ‘He was up on a roof; I don't know how high,’ she said. ‘All I know was that he fell.’"

The next day, her local paper, the Daily Press, reported: “On Friday, his mother said the Army told her, Mason was on the roof of a building preparing to train the Iraqi troops when he lost his footing and fell to the ground.”

Soon, other press reports were relating that red-haired Mason was fun-loving guy, much beloved by friends and families – and kids in Iraq, who knew him by the nickname “Crazy Monkey” for his habit of tossing them toys when he could. This inspired friends to start a project in his honor that would ship toys from the U.S. to Iraq. "He loved the kids. He was all about the kids and he wanted to have kids one day," said Christa Arnest, Mason's close friend.

Months passed. His mom felt it odd that his cause of death would be slipping off a building -- not like him at all.

Cut to yesterday and a report by WAVY-TV and its Web site, which serves the Tidewater region of Virginia. It opened with Lisa Lewis recalling the weeks after she learned of the original explanation for her son’s death: “Mason was trying to get on top of a one-story building to simulate a sniper when he fell. ‘I know someone can have an accident, but Mason was so sure-footed and so careful,’ Lisa Lewis said.

“His mother spent hour after hour agonizing his last few minutes. Two weeks later, the image changed. ‘I had come to grips with it. This is what happened and I needed to stop seeing it in my mind and just try to accept it.’

"But now 'they came with the real story and here we go all over again.'"

An investigation after Mason's death revealed what really happened, "starting with two Iraqi brothers who were helping Lewis. ‘Both eventually confessed freely to the fact that SPC Lewis was accidentally crushed by a bucket loader,’ read Lisa Lewis from the report.

“Army investigators discovered a poorly maintained bucket loader with no brakes and sluggish hydraulics, operated by an inexperienced crew, led to Mason's death

“In a home that has become a picture book of Mason's life, his mother wants the end of his story set straight for his sake.”

Set straight now -- but as I have attempted to chronicle for over five years, very often loved ones, and the press, are lied to about the circumstances of a noncombat death. Yes, full investigations must be carried out, but usually the essence of the full truth could have been communicated early on. When delayed, it can seem like -- or actually is -- a "coverup" of an accident or shooting that should have been prevented.

For a YouTube tribute to Mason Lewis go to our blog at:The E&P Pub

Greg Mitchell ( is editor. His most recent book, on Iraq and the media, is titled, "So Wrong for So Long."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Military Families: Military Suicides Are Casualties of War

Nationwide - November 13 -

Members of Military Families Speak Out are condemning comments by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs suggesting that the dramatic increase in the suicide rate among young veterans is not connected to the war in Iraq. The suicide rate among male veterans under the age of 29 is now twice that of the general population.

In an interview aired Monday November 10th on PBS's NewsHour, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake said that Veterans' suicides are the result of:

"the same kinds of issues that have to do with suicide in the general population. It is issues of failed relationships, senses of hopelessness, transitions in life, that are at the root cause . . . we're not making a direct correlation with combat."

Specialist Scott Eiswert committed suicide in May after being told by a friend that his unit of the Tennessee National Guard would be returning to Iraq. His widow, Tracy Eiswert, a member of Military Families Speak Out, expressed outrage at Secretary Peake's comments:

"I am not a statistic. We are a military family. We are real people with real experiences as a result of my husband's PTSD and his suicide. He wasn't that way before he went to Iraq, he came back changed."

After returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, Spc. Eiswert had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by civilian doctors, but the Veterans Administration denied that his condition was the result of his experiences in Iraq. The Veterans Administration reversed that ruling in August. Tracy Eiswert said:

"It took him having to put a gun in his mouth for the military to admit that the changes in my husband were a result of the war. If they had admitted that earlier he might still be alive."

Kevin and Joyce Lucey are members of Military Families Speak Out and the parents of Corporal Jeffrey Lucey, a Marine Corps Reservist who suffered severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his service in Iraq in 2003. Shortly after being turned away from a Veterans Administration hospital, Corporal Lucey killed himself on June 22, 2004. Kevin Lucey said:

"Secretary Peake's words are the kind of self serving comments that this nation does not need to hear from the Veterans Administration and its leadership. This is why many regard this VA administration to be steeped in disgrace and dishonor when it comes to our loved ones. They feel that they need to explain away, rationalize, justify or minimize - instead of committing their resources, time and efforts to create the best healthcare system on God's earth."

Joyce Lucey also had strong words for Secretary Peake:

"This is dishonorable, disgraceful and shameful behavior from someone who is charged with giving the best of care to our warriors. With this type of message and thinking, Is it any wonder that many of our troops and veterans don't seek help from those who are so callous and uncaring?"

Specialist Joe Hafley, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out who has had to fight to get treatment for his own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, agreed. Hafley served in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserves from 2004-2005, and his brother, a Major with the U.S. Army Reserves is scheduled to deploy to Iraq early next year.

When Hafley returned from Iraq, the Veterans Administration diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and severe depression -- but ruled that none of those conditions were the result of his service in Iraq. He said:

"My treatment at the VA was belittling and frustrating. To have them diagnose me with PTSD and not attribute it to my service in Iraq is a slap in the face. To have them tell me the problems could be the result of failed relationships rather than the result of my experiences in combat makes me feel that as a veteran I have no place at the VA.

"The thing that is most baffling to me is this 800 pound gorilla in the room not being addressed. Why are we feeling hopeless? Why do we have failed relationships? The common denominator is we all served in Iraq. Maybe my feeling of hopelessness is that I served my country with honor and I am still trying to figure out for what reason? For what just cause?

"Secretary Peake, it doesn't matter how many additional mental health workers you hire if you as the person at the top still feel we are just losers that failed to adjust or that we entered our military service unfit. No amount of false support will help us."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

U.S. army commits $50 million research into soldier suicides

Big News

Sunday 2nd November, 2008

The U.S. Army and the National Institute of Mental Health have begun a five-year, $50 million research program into the factors behind soldier suicides and how to prevent them.

Army Secretary Pete Geren told reporters at the Pentagon the investigation would build on work that is already under way to conduct the most far-reaching and comprehensive research project ever undertaken on suicide and its prevention.

"It's a five-year study to examine the mental and behavioral health of soldiers, with particular focus on the multiple determinants of suicidal behavior and resiliency across all phases of Army service," Geren said. "Family members and family relationships, including parents and siblings, will also be included in the study where it's appropriate."

The study will also include the National Guard and Army Reserve.This effort will be followed by an Army Science Board study with the goal of identifying correlated risk factors and recommending mitigation strategies and practices to prevent suicide.

At the same time, the secretary said, the Army would not wait for the end of the study to implement mitigation strategies, but would put those strategies into practice as they make themselves clear.

According Dr. Thomas R. Insel, NIMH director, the study will give NIMH a bigger picture on the suicide risk factors of the nation's population, critical information that he said affects the entire United States because the Army is a "microcosm of the nation."

"There are more than 30,000 suicides in the U.S. each year, actually 32,000 in 2006, the most recent year for which we have numbers," he said. "That's almost twice the number of homicides in the country. Suicide is really a significant public health problem. If we can reduce the rate in the Army, it will ultimately reduce the rate in the nation. Those are really the goals for this collaborative effort."

Dr. S. Ward Casscells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said that "suicide rates aren't exactly plummeting."

"Half the suicides we can't figure out what happened, so that's why we need the NIMH’s help," he said.

Geren said that of the 115 suicides the Army confirmed in 2007, thirty six of the soldiers were deployed at time of death, 50 had been deployed prior to their deaths, and twenty nine had never been deployed. The secretary said he expects suicide rates for 2008 will be up compared with 2007 rates.