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Army knew accused Iraq vet was homicidal

By MARK BENJAMIN and DAN OLMSTED, United Press International   |   Dec. 12, 2003 at 5:48 PM
WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The Army knew that a soldier who saw intense combat in Iraq felt homicidal but released him from care just days before he allegedly was involved in the death of another soldier, according to Army records reviewed by United Press International.

That case occurred at Fort Benning, Ga., in July, and charges were filed after police discovered the skeletal remains of Spc. Richard Davis on Nov. 7.

The problem could be broader: Soldiers at several Army bases told UPI they fear that a shortage of counselors and cursory attention to mental problems after combat might lead to more deaths as tens of thousands of troops return from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Medical records reviewed by UPI show that the Army knew Pvt. Jacob Burgoyne was having "homicidal/suicidal" thoughts in the days before the killing at Fort Benning. Burgoyne made an apparent suicide attempt on his way home from war 10 days before the incident, records show.

Army medical officials in Kuwait took away his gun, said he could not be left alone even to smoke and put him on a suicide watch. They diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder and said that on his return to Fort Benning he immediately should be escorted to the base psychiatric unit.

That was July 8.

But when Burgoyne stepped off the airplane at Fort Benning on July 10, he had one meeting with a counselor that night at the Fort Benning hospital and was released, according to several members of his family.

On July 14, four days later, Burgoyne went out with four other soldiers who all fought in the same company in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, police said. He was there in the early morning hours when Davis was stabbed repeatedly, dragged into the woods and his body set on fire after the group got kicked out of a strip club.

Burgoyne's mother, Billie Urban, said the Army should have kept him in the psychiatric unit when he got off the plane from war. "He got a 40-minute evaluation and then they let him go," Urban said in a telephone interview from her home in Keystone, Fla.

Urban traveled to Fort Benning to meet her son when he arrived and was surprised when he was escorted almost immediately to the hospital. The Army did some blood tests, Burgoyne met the counselor, and he was released after midnight, according to several members of his family.

"They should have admitted him" to the psychiatric ward upon his return from Kuwait, Urban said. "As much as I wanted to see him, I would have accepted that." She said she was unaware at the time of her son's trouble and suicide attempt in Kuwait.

The Army said it could not discuss Burgoyne's case specifically, because it could not release his medical records. Fort Benning spokeswoman Master Sgt. Dottie Vick said the Army took appropriate steps to care for soldiers in Burgoyne's unit.

"The Army does everything it can to help all of its soldiers," Vick said. "They started decompression overseas. They also get continued debriefings, decompression and reintegration when they return."

J. Mark Shelnutt, an attorney representing another soldier charged in the death, said soldiers from Burgoyne's unit have told him the Army efforts to address mental problems were inadequate.

"I have talked to soldiers in this company about the debriefing procedures," Shelnutt said. "I have had those procedures described to me as a joke and that they were of no help whatsoever."

All four soldiers there when Davis died were charged originally with murder, but a judge reduced the charges against Burgoyne and two others to concealing a death. Police say Pvt. Alberto Martinez, who is charged with murder, stabbed Davis.

Burgoyne and the other soldiers served in the same company of the 3rd Infantry Division's 15th Infantry Regiment -- the tip of the spear in the invasion into Iraq in March. Burgoyne's records appear to show he engaged in heavy combat, saw fellow soldiers fall and was in danger of being pinned down by enemy fire on at least one occasion.

After the charge to Baghdad, Burgoyne filled out several Army forms beginning in early June that offer glimpses of a severely troubled soldier. He filled in circles noting that he was "feeling down, depressed, or hopeless" and had "thoughts that you would be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way." He marked "yes" to a question that asked whether he feared he "might hurt or lose control with someone?"

Another form shows that Burgoyne expressed "suicidal thoughts or actions" and "serious concern (agitation, withdrawal, grief) regarding combat/events while in theatre."

The Army recommended that he be enrolled in a substance abuse program and "referred to mental health for evaluation and treatment."

The troops were processed through Kuwait on their way back to Fort Benning. On July 5 in Kuwait, Burgoyne made the apparent suicide attempt by overdosing on anti-anxiety and antidepressant medicine he had been prescribed.

The Army hospitalized him there on a suicide watch and prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa. They ordered that he be accompanied at all times and not allowed near guns. They had him sign a form agreeing that he would "remain free from self-destructing behaviors and self injurious behaviors as well as refraining from behaviors that would result in injury and/or harm to others."

On July 7, the Army diagnosed him with PTSD and ordered that he could return to duty, but that he must be monitored at all times and barred from guns (a notation states that he "currently denies" feeling homicidal or suicidal). The Army said he "will be command directed to Psych upon return to CONUS (the Continental United States)."

On July 10, Burgoyne arrived at Fort Benning and was released after the session with the counselor. Police said he was present when Davis was stabbed to death in the early morning of July 15.

The records show the Army was aware that Burgoyne had a history of mental problems and violent behavior. They note he previously had been seen at Fort Benning for mental health problems and cite "hospitalization for suicide attempt in May 02" along with an earlier hospitalization in Florida for anxiety and depression. He had received seven formal reprimands, called "Article 15s," for problems including fights. According to published reports, he was sentenced to a month in prison for a fight earlier this year at Fort Benning that put another soldier in a coma. But after two weeks, he was released to fight in Iraq.

The Army stepped up efforts to help soldiers returning from deployments after the summer of 2002. Three special operations soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., who returned from the war in Afghanistan allegedly killed their wives that summer and then themselves.

The concern now is that the Army still might not be doing enough to help Burgoyne and others. "When you send young men and women over there to face unimaginable circumstances, how can we not give them every resource we can find to help them readjust to life here in America?" said Shelnutt, the attorney. "We have to do better for our soldiers."


(mbenjamin@upi.com; dolmsted@upi.com)

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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