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Public Statements

Letter to The Honorable Robert M. Gates, Secretary of Defense

Letter

By:
Date:
Location: Unknown

December 14, 2007

The Honorable Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301

Dear Secretary Gates:

We are concerned over reports that members of our Armed Forces with underlying mental health conditions are not receiving balanced, fair, and impartial reviews when facing judicial punishment and administrative discharge for engaging in misconduct that could be related to their conditions.

We understand and support the necessity of maintaining good order and discipline in the military. At the same time, we are concerned that the decision to prosecute a service member with serious mental health issues may, in some cases, be carried out without appropriate consideration of recommendations made by uniformed mental health providers. As such, we ask you to promptly review guidelines for the administrative handling of such complex cases.
On December 2, 2007, The Washington Post ran a story entitled "A Soldier's Officer" that clearly illustrates our concerns. The piece details the ordeal of Army First Lieutenant Elizabeth Whiteside, who according to available reports, served honorably at both Water Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and in Iraq before experiencing severe mental health symptoms and attempting suicide. During her apparent suicide attempt, Lt. Whiteside threatened a number of her fellow service members, and as a result, we understand the Army is currently deciding whether to pursue a court-martial against her.

What we find particularly troubling about this case is that military commanders with no medical training derided the documented medical opinions as to Lt. Whiteside's mental condition and their bearing on the case. Colonel Terrence J. McKenrick, commander of the Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed, charged that even though medical professionals had determined Lt. Whiteside had a "severe mental disease or defect, she knowingly assaulted and threatened others and injured herself." Another commander wrote that Lt. Whiteside's "defense that she suffers from a mental disease excusing her actions is just that…an excuse; an excuse to distract from choices and decisions made by Lt. Whiteside." These statements are contrary to the apparent recommendations of Lt. Whiteside's battalion commander in Iraq that disciplinary actions not be taken, and show a callous disregard for the diagnosis of qualified psychiatrists at WRAMC, who found that Lt. Whiteside suffered from a "severe major depressive disorder and a personality disorder" and "disassociation with reality."

We believe that service members should be held accountable for their actions, and we recognize that the Manual for Courts-Martial provides procedures for handling mental health issues in judicial proceedings. However, this case highlights the need for the Department to review its administrative procedures and training programs to ensure that commanders give full and fair consideration of the recommendations made by trained mental health providers before initiating disciplinary actions against soldiers suffering from mental diseases.

Additionally, as Senators who have worked extensively to improve mental health care services for our armed forces, we find it unacceptable that officers with no medical training—who are required by law to protect the impartiality of the military justice process—would make dismissive statements regarding Lt. Whiteside's mental health condition. These comments only undermine respect for the mental health profession and increase the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.

According to the Congressionally-mandated report of the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health, "every military leader bears responsibility for addressing stigma; leaders who fail to do so reduce the effectiveness of the service members they lead." The Department is best served by ending policies that discriminate against service-members who suffer from mental health problems and working to eliminate the stigma that prevents too many from seeking care. That is why we strongly urge you to ensure that the recommendations of qualified medical professionals play a clearly defined and important role in proceedings to discharge or punish any service member with an underlying mental health condition.
Thank you for your consideration of this important request.

Sincerely,

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Christopher S. Bond
United States Senator

Barack Obama
United States Senator

John F. Kerry
United States Senator


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