On the evening of Fri., Aug. 12, the veteran-owned, veteran-operated coffeehouse Coffee Strong, located near Fort Lewis, will host an evening event dedicated to issues raised by the case of Sgt. Derrick Kirkland. -- Kirkland committed suicide on Joint Base Lewis-McChord on March 19, 2010, after being mocked by superiors and evaluated as being a "low-moderate risk" of suicide. -- But he had made three previous attempts to kill himself. -- Sgt. Kirkland's mother, Mary, will speak on Friday at Coffee Strong. -- She told the Seattle Weekly in January that the U.S. Army missed "three opportunities that it had to save him." -- A recent interview conducted with Jeremiah Kirkland, who was also in the U.S. Army and is a member of March Forward!, offers insight into the demons spawned by war that haunted his brother. -- "He was just a good person, full of compassion; and he didn’t know how to deal with killing people," Jeremiah Kirkland said. "Some of the pictures he showed me, there was one guy all shot up, at least seven times, one through the face. He’s going through all these pictures and saying 'this is what I did.'" -- On Jun. 26 the News Tribune (Tacoma, WA) published an extensive article on Kirkland and military suicides, which included an interview with Kirkland's mother and a Freedom of Information request by the News Tribune. -- Adam Ashton noted that "Since April 2010, four soldiers and two military contractors killed themselves within Lakewood’s city limits. The total number of Lewis-McChord soldiers committing suicide has held steady, with nine in each of the past two years and seven in 2008. -- In addition to the suicides that happen quietly, two Lewis-McChord killed themselves in the past year very publicly. In August, Spc. Brandon Barrett went AWOL and died in a shootout with police in Salt Lake City. In April, Sgt. David Stewart killed his wife and then himself off Interstate 5 in Thurston County. Police later found their 5-year-old son dead in their Spanaway home. -- Some soldiers who’ve sought counseling at Madigan report receiving superficial help that doesn’t address problems including sleep deprivation or depression. They worry that a failure to find the right therapist could lead to dangerous behavior or suicides." ...
[PHOTO CAPTION: Mary Corkhill Kirkland, 49, of Indianapolis, holds a photograph of her son, Spc. Derrick Kirkland, who committed suicide while serving in the Army.]
WHAT: 'Justice for Sgt. Kirkland!'
WHO: March Forward! and soldiers, veterans, & military families
WHEN: Friday, August 12, 2011 -- 7:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
WHERE: Coffee Strong, 15109 Union Ave. SW #2, Lakewood, WA 98498
[Text below sent by March Forward! (an affiliate of the ANSWER Coalition)]
Active-duty soldiers, veterans, military families to speak out at Fort Lewis; don't miss this historic event!
Join us to:
-- Get eyewitness accounts of the wars and mental health treatment from soldiers and veterans.
-- Learn about the case of Sgt.Derrick Kirkland, and how it exposes the criminality of the entire system -- from abusive mental health care, to endless wars we have no reason to fight.
-- Hear about the organizing being done to win justice for Kirkland, and the millions of lives ruined by the Pentagon's decisions.
-- Learn why soldiers must collectively organize in their own interests to combat the absurd orders and criminal treatment from this government, and how you can get involved.
Hear compelling testimony from:
-- Sgt. Kirkland's mother, Mary, coming all the way from her home in Indiana.
-- Active-duty soldiers in Kirkland's unit.
-- Iraq war veterans turned anti-war organizers.
For more information, email or visit www.MarchForward.org
More info on the case:
"All the clinicians up here are being pressured to not diagnose PTSD" -- Army mental health doctor.
Last year Sgt. Kirkland, an infantryman stationed at Fort Lewis, was on his second combat tour in Iraq when he was sent home for mental health reasons. Sgt. Kirkland attempted suicide three times in a matter of two weeks, then was rated a "low risk for suicide" by Army mental health doctors, mocked and ridiculed by his chain of command, given no treatment but handfuls of pills, then assigned to a room by himself (a violation of Army regulations for soldiers at risk of suicide). Sgt. Kirkland killed himself shortly thereafter. He left behind a wife, baby daughter, and a caring family.
Sgt. Kirkland is one of thousands who have been killed by the Army's criminally negligent mental health care. But this time was different . . .
Fellow soldiers in Kirkland's unit, 4-9 Infantry, began organizing together against the treatment they were receiving and publicly speaking out to expose the crisis in today's military: A government that has been carelessly sending us for ten years to two unpopular, endless occupations; a government that has billions for defense contractors but "not enough money" to stop a record-breaking suicide epidemic.
But the campaign to win justice for Kirkland and to expose the criminality of the system is just getting started. Thousands around the country have signed the petition, and have gotten the word out to many more. Attention around this blatant example of how little our lives matter to Washington is growing nationwide.
Please join us for this historic event, as veterans and soldiers lead the way by taking their lives into their own hands and organizing against the reckless orders that have cost so many lives.
COULD THE ARMY HAVE PREVENTED DERRICK KIRKLAND'S SUICIDE?
By Nina Shapiro
** His mom sure thinks so **
January 12, 2011
A couple of months ago we wrote about local Army Spc. Derrick Kirkland, who hung himself last March upon returning from Iraq. A group of soldiers in his battalion claimed that Kirkland's suicide followed taunting from his sergeant, prompting a statement by a Joint Base Lewis-McChord spokesperson that such alleged mistreatment was never brought up by the late soldier's family. But Kirkland's mother, Mary, says she "raised questions from day one" -- and has gotten some disturbing answers.
Speaking by phone from Indianapolis, where she lives, Mary says those were "three opportunities that [the Army] had to save him," all of which it blew. (Army spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.)
The first time Kirkland tried to commit suicide was in Iraq, according a report in Mary's possession. On February 10, 2010, Kirkland stuck a gun in his mouth but was interrupted by a fellow soldier. The Army sent him to a psychiatric unit at Camp Liberty near Baghdad, where he again tried to kill himself, this time by overdosing on medication.
On March 13, he arrived at Madigan Army Medical Center at Lewis-McChord. Two days later, the psychiatric unit where he was staying released him. "Spc. Kirkland did not require any further supervision," the report says, noting also that he was "deemed as a low-moderate risk."
At that point, Mary's 5'6'' son weighed only 110 pounds, according to documents. She says she wishes the Army had assigned a buddy to Kirkland who could have watched over him. Instead, Kirkland moved into his own room. Three days later, he sliced his arms and took "an excessive amount of pills" while drinking alcohol, the investigation report says. Somehow he survived and bandaged himself up. He appeared for the routine morning formation the next day, where apparently no one noticed anything amiss. The very next night, he took a white nylon rope and finally achieved what he had set out to do so many times before.
BROTHER OF SGT. KIRKLAND: 'ARMY MEDICAL HEALTH CARE IS A JOKE'
July 1, 2011
Sgt. Derrick Kirkland lost his life to suicide on March 19, 2010, after criminally neglegent mental health care from the Army. Fellow soldiers and family members have launched a campaign to hold those responsible accountable.
The following is an interview by March Forward! with Derrick Kirkland’s younger brother, Jeremiah, who was also in the U.S. Army and is a member of March Forward!.
Jeremiah Kirkland was an infantryman in the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
March Forward!: What led you to join the Army in the first place?
Jeremiah Kirkland: I was 16 years old and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, just got pregnant. I moved in with my brother, got my GED, and once I got that joined the Army. Basically there’s no way you can make it with a kid at 17 with a GED-level education.
What did you notice about Derrick after he got home from his first deployment?
Well, the first big noticeable thing was, me and my brother growing up were always joking around and everything. He got back and was quiet and reserved. He had a penchant for -- not bragging -- but explaining his experiences a little bit, showing us pictures of random dead people. I talked to him about it and said he just couldn’t get rid of the pictures. I don’t know, it was just with him, you could tell. Before that he was really close with his wife, even during his deployment, but when I lived with him subsequently I had never seen them happy around each other. He started drinking a whole bunch. Growing up I’ve seen him through hard points in life and he’s always bounced back from them, but after this he never bounced back.
Do you know what it was that affected him?
He was just a good person, full of compassion; and he didn’t know how to deal with killing people. Some of the pictures he showed me, there was one guy all shot up, at least seven times, one through the face. He’s going through all these pictures and saying “this is what I did.”
Did he express to you that he wasn’t okay?
Oh yeah. The one big one was, apparently a guy got shot up and his squad leader told him to stand on the dude’s chest until he bled out. That really was the big one for him. It was the one he talked about the most. At the same time he wanted to distance himself from it emotionally, didn’t want to react to it. The only time he would open up is when he was drunk. He just broke down, didn’t know how to deal with it. He just . . . didn’t deal with it. He didn’t know where to even begin to wrap his head around that kind of sh*t.
Was he trying to get help at this point?
At first, no. He said, "Yeah I have these issues, but there’s still that stigma about seeking help for PTSD in the Army."
How did he feel when he got his orders to deploy again?
[Laughing] You could say he was less than enthusiastic. He left a piece of him there, you know? And I think he really thought that going back he could just get back in the routine, and could go on being a zombie for the Army, but he figured out when he was there he was still feeling all the sh*t.
What was he like when you talked to him after he was sent home?
He was just totally depressed. It all got to him.
Did he express his frustration with the treatment he was getting?
Yeah, he said all they did was load him up with drugs.
What was your reaction when you heard that he had killed himself?
In all honestly, I was not surprised. I mean, Army mental health care is a joke. You pretty much go there, don’t even tell them anything, and they determine whatever category you’re in based on different factors and that’s the treatment you get. My brother got substandard treatment. They consistently dropped the ball.
Who do you think is responsible for your brother’s death?
This government! If he hadn’t been deployed, for no goddamn reason but corporate greed, he would still be here.
What do you think about Derrick being rated a “low risk” for suicide by the Army?
Not surprised, honestly. It’s just, you know, pretty much whatever they can do to save the government dollar on giving our soldiers actual health care. It just doesn’t work.
You tried to receive mental health counseling recently. What was your experience?
Well, I go try to talk to [an] on-call social worker, because they say we can use them without fear of reprimand. I go there and said I’m just having a rough day, the day before had been my brother’s birthday. I wasn’t going because I was threatening to hurt myself or anything, I wanted to go because I was just feeling some pressure. When I get there, instead of sitting down and talking to somebody, there was just this revolving door of characters coming in, asking me three questions and leaving. By the time I actually talked to a psychiatrist, half the things I said were just all jumbled up. From there, the psychiatrist said they didn’t think I was suicidal, but because I fell into a certain category of 18-24-year-old male they told me I could either commit myself or be emergency detained. I thought it was ridiculous and I didn’t want to stay, so the nurse tackled me and police detained me by force. Even though I’m not suicidal, I got emergency detained for it they locked me up over night against my will without any reason. The very first meeting I had with a psychiatrist, she said: “I don’t even know why you’re here.”
Did you even get the treatment you went for in the first place?
Not really. People came in and ask me questions, but as far as going to talk to someone and get some stuff out, no.
What did that teach you about VA mental heath care?
Don’t trust the VA health care! It was such a horrible experience that just made things worse, I’ll never go back.
So your brother was trying to kill himself and got denied care and given a room in the barracks alone, while you were not suicidal and just wanted basic counseling and they locked you up?
If anybody would have listened to my brother -- within two weeks he tried to kill himself three times -- it should have been painfully obvious that he should’ve been under observation. I’m normal, all the people there said they didn’t think I was in danger -- but it all boils down to them just dishing out faceless care. We got opposite treatment because the doctors don’t even pay attention. Health care takes face time, you can’t just show up somewhere and treat people by checking boxes.
How do you think we can we change it?
We just need enough people. We all got to get our stories out there. As veterans we have to, as a whole, demand better treatment. We all have to band together. If we don’t want to fight these wars, we got to go on a general strike, and refuse. There’s nothing we can do but drastic stuff to change it. You know, that’s just the way it works. Sh*t isn’t going to change until we all put in what we have to into the pot.
JBLM SOLDIER WHO KILLED SELF FELL THROUGH CRACKS, SOLDIERS AND MOM SAY
By Adam Ashton
News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)
June 26, 2011
Derrick Kirkland’s friends thought they got him the care he needed in southern Iraq when they told commanders the 23-year-old Army specialist had raised a shotgun to his mouth and threatened to kill himself.
Their alarms -- and a second suicide attempt -- led the Army to evacuate Kirkland early last year from his base to Landstuhl, Germany. His next stop was Madigan Army Medical Center at his home station, Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
But Kirkland’s distress, so apparent to fellow soldiers, fell short of what a Madigan psychiatrist regarded as “high risk behavior” that would have kept him in the hospital under constant watch.
Instead, the Army assigned him a private bedroom in the barracks south of Tacoma on March 15, 2010, and sent him to work with his unit’s rear detachment.
He hanged himself four days later.
“They didn’t try to observe him,” said his mother, Mary Corkhill Kirkland, 49, of Indianapolis. “He just fell through the cracks.”
The Army agreed. It completed a review of Kirkland’s death in March, concluding that a lack of communication between the soldier’s unit in Iraq, Madigan and the soldiers who were to work with him at Lewis-McChord resulted in him failing to get the attention he needed.
Together, the report concluded, they could have done better to ensure “that the soldier was a priority to his unit and the Army.”
Madigan in the past two years has embraced an Army-wide push to prevent suicides and address post-traumatic stress among combat veterans. It has one of the largest behavioral health staffs among Army hospitals and it’s been at the front of the Defense Department’s efforts to take the stigma out of seeking help for emotional distress.
Yet suicides such as Kirkland’s continue, fueling a perception among some South Sound residents that the military isn’t doing enough to look after its own. The United Way of Pierce County even proposed -- then backed off -- a proposal to raise property taxes countywide this year to pay for more mental health care for service members.
Among the cases of troubled soldiers that played out badly:
• Since April 2010, four soldiers and two military contractors killed themselves within Lakewood’s city limits. The total number of Lewis-McChord soldiers committing suicide has held steady, with nine in each of the past two years and seven in 2008.
• In addition to the suicides that happen quietly, two Lewis-McChord killed themselves in the past year very publicly. In August, Spc. Brandon Barrett went AWOL and died in a shootout with police in Salt Lake City. In April, Sgt. David Stewart killed his wife and then himself off Interstate 5 in Thurston County. Police later found their 5-year-old son dead in their Spanaway home.
• Some soldiers who’ve sought counseling at Madigan report receiving superficial help that doesn’t address problems including sleep deprivation or depression. They worry that a failure to find the right therapist could lead to dangerous behavior or suicides.
MANY IN NEED
Kevin Baker, a former soldier who served with Kirkland on a previous deployment to Iraq, said Kirkland’s troubles were not unusual.
“It’s collectively a lot of people screaming out for help,” said Baker, who was part of Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division -- one of three Stryker brigades that returned last summer in the biggest wave of local homecomings in a decade.
Baker served in the same Stryker battalion as Kirkland and deployed with him to Iraq in 2007, though they weren’t friends and didn’t know each other well.
Since he left the Army earlier this year, Baker has persistently pointed to Kirkland’s death as a sign of the Army failing to care for someone who repeatedly showed signs of psychological distress. He now lives in Southern California and is active in anti-war groups.
He’s especially outraged about Kirkland’s death because he overheard other soldiers calling Kirkland a “coward” while Baker served in the brigade’s rear detachment last year.
“There’s definitely a stigma in the military,” Baker said. “The chain of command will openly say if you have problems you should seek help, but that blankets over the reality of it.”
His suggestion stings for the mental health professionals working to prevent suicides and treat post-traumatic stress at the West Coast’s largest military installation. They insist that the doors are open for soldiers who want to talk through their pain.
“A soldier’s place to die is on the battlefield. It’s terrible to lose one at home,” said retired Col. Jerome Penner, who led Madigan before leaving for a civilian post in Kentucky two months ago. “You lose one back here, we just beat ourselves up for it.”
Penner spoke to the News Tribune about mental health programs in general, not about Kirkland’s death.
NO CLEAR REASONS
The Army over the past five years has worked exhaustively to curb suicides among active-duty soldiers. They peaked two years ago, when 162 active-duty soldiers took their own lives.
Through that push, the Army learned that there isn’t a clear reason behind the surge in suicides. It recognizes that repeated deployments stress military families, but finds that suicide victims tend to be soldiers with one or fewer combat deployments behind them. Troubled relationships and substance abuse also contribute to suicides, the Army found.
“The fact is soldiers new to the military who’ve never deployed can have a lot of issues, so I don’t think there’s one category,” said Daniel Christensen, chief of a drop-in mental health clinic at Madigan.
He said people respond to traumatic events differently. Some develop acute stress disorders from seeing heavy combat; others suffer from the emotional turmoil caused by spending a year or more away from their families.
Police reports from the soldier suicides that took place in Lakewood last year reflect the complexity of the distress that can push a soldier to the brink. Two killed themselves in private, leaving no signs of what led them to take their lives.
One soldier in April 2010 shot himself in front of his wife during his leave from his deployment in Afghanistan. The soldier had been drinking and arguing with his mother over the phone just before he killed himself, according to the police report. He had spoken to his wife about having problems with the military.
Lewis-McChord’s two high-profile public suicides in the past year also revealed a combination of work and personal struggles.
Barrett, the Lewis-McChord soldier who died in a gunfight with Salt Lake City police, reportedly was disturbed by his recent deployment to Afghanistan with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, according to an Army report obtained by the Arizona Daily Star.
The Army hasn’t yet released its investigation into Stewart’s April death. A Thurston County coroner report concluded that he and his wife were using “bath salts,” a designer drug that gives users a high similar to cocaine or methamphetamine. The medic had served in Iraq twice, most recently in 2009.
GETTING THE RIGHT HELP
While Madigan doctors are determined to help troubled soldiers, sometimes service members seeking counseling can’t find the right person.
One specialist from the 4th Brigade said his 2009-10 tour in Iraq left him disillusioned with the Army. He felt the mission lacked purpose and he was angered by soldiers in his platoon who bullied subordinates. He spoke with the News Tribune on condition of anonymity because he continues to serve in the brigade and fears professional repercussions.
As he got settled in his stateside life, the soldier said he had trouble sleeping and continued to feel anger at platoon mates.
He sought help at a Madigan sleep clinic and became frustrated by counselors who didn’t seem to understand his experiences on a combat deployment. He also felt the effort to care for soldiers was insincere, as if the counselors were trying “to check a box.”
“You sit down and start talking to this person because you think they’re going to help you or put you in touch with someone who can, when really all they’re going to say is ‘Here’s this list of phone numbers.’”
The soldier said he kept trying with different therapists over six months before finding one he trusted. He said he’s making progress now, but it would’ve been easy to give up after sitting through unhelpful seminars and failing to connect with Madigan’s behavioral health staff.
“If something was really, really wrong with me, I could’ve fallen through the cracks. They should take you from Point A to Point B” to make sure soldiers see someone who can help them, he said.
His fellow 4th Brigade soldier, Derrick Kirkland, did fall through the cracks.
'I'LL KEEP PRETENDING'
Kirkland lived with anguish at home and on the battlefield, according to his mother and the Army’s assessment of his health when he arrived at Madigan.
Corkhill Kirkland said her son joined the Army at age 20 to support his young family. When he spoke with an officer at Lewis-McChord in the days before he killed himself, he admitted to abusing drugs as a young man. The Army helped him break that dependence, Kirkland told the officer.
His mother said Kirkland was proud of serving and wore his uniform whenever he went home to Indiana.
“He was a jokester,” Corkhill Kirkland said. “He always tried to make people laugh. He was very sensitive but tried to play the tough guy. He did love his country.”
Kirkland deployed to Iraq with the 4th Brigade in 2007-08, during a period of heavy fighting. Corkhill Kirkland noticed he seemed distressed by some experiences, such as when he shot at an Iraqi car that surprised him during a night watch.
“Mom, I’m a murderer, I actually had to kill people,” he told her.
She tried to comfort him. “‘Well, Derrick it was the war, and it was probably you or them,’” she remembered saying.
Kirkland’s marriage was on the rocks when he went back to Iraq in September 2009 with the 4th Brigade, his mother said. Army records show he tried to kill himself February 10, 2010, and started using behavioral health services that month. He called himself a failure because his marriage was ending. He made a second attempt to take his life in early March and was evacuated to Germany.
He arrived at Madigan on March 13, and doctors at Madigan knew about Kirkland’s suicide attempts in Iraq. They noted that he appeared focused on his future when they spoke with him. It appeared to them that Kirkland had come to terms with a decision to end his marriage, and that he was looking forward to being a part of his daughter’s life.
“He expressed being future-oriented, motivated by his desire to be present to his daughter,” reads Kirkland’s mental status evaluation from March 15, 2010.
Kirkland went to the barracks and showed mixed feelings about his health, according to an Army Criminal Investigative Division report that the News Tribune obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request.
In conversations, he often shifted between dwelling on his failing marriage or perking up while talking about his daughter.
“I’ll keep pretending to be a stable person,” he wrote on a friend’s Facebook page, according to the Army investigation.
An investigator found that Kirkland tried to kill himself a third time the night of March 18 by cutting his arms, taking pills, and drinking alcohol. He survived and made it to his morning formation the next day, where no one noticed his bandages. He died sometime the night of March 19.
Corkhill Kirkland believes her son needed more consistent attention once he arrived at Madigan. The 5-foot-4-inch soldier weighed 110 pounds, down from his usual 125 pounds.
“They should’ve kept him in a hospital,” she said.
A sergeant who spoke with Army investigators last year held the same opinion. The sergeant -- whose name was concealed in records provided to the *News Tribune* -- told investigators he was assigned to keep watch on Kirkland in February 2010 around the time of his first suicide attempt.
The sergeant said Kirkland appeared to leave Iraq on a path toward getting help that would keep him alive.
“I really believe had they done a better job taking him seriously, then this would have never happened,” the sergeant said. “When he had help, he was doing fine, but when he got back to the U.S. and the help wasn’t there and he was left alone, he felt like no one cared. He shouldn’t have been left alone.”
Lewis-McChord soldiers who spoke with an investigating officer reported that no one told them Kirkland had twice tried to kill himself when he arrived at their unit. They thought Kirkland would spend more time at Madigan’s Warrior Transition Battalion under constant watch before joining them.
“When Spc. Kirkland arrived to his unit, he should not have been assigned a room by himself and routine checks should have been established,” the officer wrote in the death investigation completed in March. “Ensuring Spc. Kirkland felt that he had support through the whole process needed to be emphasized to leave no doubt that the soldier was a priority to his unit and the Army.”
Corkhill Kirkland fears that other military moms will suffer a loss like hers if the Army doesn’t adopt more strict policies to standardize treatment of soldiers showing signs of emotional distress.
“When they come back, I don’t care how much they try to convince you they’re OK,” she said, “don’t leave them alone for 30 days.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646