When Kristofer Goldsmith woke up, he was handcuffed to a hospital gurney. The US Army sergeant could remember only snippets of the night before, but one of the things he remembered was washing down half a bottle of painkillers with vodka in an attempt to end his life.
The day Goldsmith woke up in the hospital — May 28, 2007 — was the day he was supposed to be on a plane to Iraq for his second tour of duty. Two months earlier, doctors had diagnosed him with depression and adjustment disorder, an ill-defined malady characterized by the onset of physical and emotional symptoms after a stressful event. But Goldsmith says he was actually suffering from the more severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) brought on by his year-long 2005 deployment to Iraq, where his intelligence-gathering duties included photographing the sites of war crimes and mass graves.
Goldsmith is currently in the midst of his third appeal of his general discharge from the military for the "commission of a serious offense" — missing his plane to the Middle East after his suicide attempt. He is also working with lawmakers to draw attention to and ultimately pass the Veterans Fairness Act, which seeks to help veterans suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI) resulting from combat or "military sexual trauma" by making it easier to be accurately diagnosed, and for that diagnosis to be taken into account relative to a discharge.
PTSD has affected about 20 percent of Iraq war veterans, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and its symptoms can often lead to discharges, although proper diagnosis is hardly a given. Leaving the military with anything less than an honorable discharge can preclude veterans from receiving government benefits.
"Other-than-honorable discharges are done administratively — it's an officer filing a piece of paper, and a few weeks later a combat veteran could be out [of the Army]," Goldsmith said. "That's the problem with these less-than-honorable discharges, they're punitive, are so easy to issue, and they have such dramatic effects on the lives of veterans."
The night of the attempted suicide, Goldsmith's best friend, Steve Acheson, and a group of military police found him passed out in a field at Fort Stewart military base in Georgia, where both men were stationed.
Goldsmith had been staying with Acheson — the pair had graduated from basic training tied at the top of their class — and Acheson's then-wife at a rented house about 5 miles off-base in Hinesville, Georgia. Goldsmith had been recovering from surgery for a deviated septum while awaiting deployment, which had been delayed for a month because of the operation.
Acheson had been sleeping after a 24-hour duty shift when he woke sometime after midnight to use the bathroom. On his way past Goldsmith's bedroom, Acheson noticed the light was on; he poked his head in to say hi, but realized the room was empty. He then saw that Goldsmith had not packed for his deployment, which was supposed to be the next morning, and that notes and photos of Goldsmith's family and friends were strewn on the bed. Acheson immediately called military police to tell them he thought Goldsmith might be attempting suicide, and rushed to the base wearing only flip-flops and shorts. He had a feeling that Goldsmith had headed to the parade field, where trees had been planted for every soldier in their unit who had died in combat.
"I figured, if I was going to kill myself, that's where I'd do it," Acheson said.
The team fanned out across the grounds, and soon one of the military police officers found Goldsmith lying unconscious on a mound of red ants.
"Kris had gone through some pretty intense things while deployed that drastically changed who he was when he returned," Acheson said. "Did I think Kris had PTSD? At that time, I was only 22 years old, and unclear of what PTSD even was myself."
After being brought to the psychiatric ward of Winn Army Community Hospital at Fort Stewart, Goldsmith drifted in and out of consciousness for two days. About a week later, he told doctors that his suicide attempt had been a "fluke" and managed to convince them he wasn't depressed in order to secure a speedy release.
"I was on a psych ward with guys who were actually crazy," he said. "The doctors on the ward told me that I'd be up there as long as they wanted me to be, which felt like a threat. [It] was more terrifying than being in Iraq. I had little to no contact with the outside world and was treated like a prisoner."
Two weeks after doctors released Goldsmith back to the base, the Army issued him two Article-15 non-judicial punishments related to his suicide attempt. One was for "missing movement," or failing to get on his flight to Iraq, and the other was for "malingering" — in this case, feigning a mental illness to escape duty. Goldsmith invoked his right to reject the punishments and demanded a court-martial. But he never got his trial.
Not long after his release from the hospital, Goldsmith's parents, who live in New York, contacted their then–senator, Hillary Clinton, and asked her to intervene in their son's case.
"Once the congressional inquiry about my situation came down to the unit, they halted the Article-15 proceedings and discharged me from the Army as quickly as they possibly could," Goldsmith said. "Next thing I knew I was 21 and living back in my childhood bedroom, with no idea how to get care at the [VA] — or that I was even eligible for it."
Up until his discharge in August 2007, Goldsmith had a spotless military record. He joined the army at 18, graduated from basic training at the top of his class in 2004, and by 19 was serving his first tour in Iraq. He remembers spending his 20th birthday in the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad, overlooking the city and watching car bombs explode in the distance.
"I never engaged in house-to-house fighting or any heroic stuff you see in the movies," he said. "What my job ended up being was like the photo documentarian of my platoon, and in some cases that was just taking pictures of whatever we were doing. But frequently it was taking pictures of dead kids that were tossed on the side of the road with signs of torture on their bodies.
"At the age of 19 or 20, I didn't possess the ability to really shake that off," he said.
In the Army, Goldsmith was well-liked and respected by his peers and superiors, who twice recommended him for the Bronze Star. He was promoted faster than many of his fellow soldiers in his unit, attaining the rank of sergeant in two years. But after his return from Iraq, he suffered from insomnia and began drinking heavily while off duty.
"Kris was fast-tracking through the ranks quicker than any other Forward Observer at Fort Stewart," Acheson said. "He was pretty much a straight-edge kid before we deployed — no drugs, no smoking, no drinking. After our return from deployment, I watched him turn into a destructive person, drinking every night, taking risks, becoming reckless in his personal life. His career and reputation as a sergeant remained intact… [even though] he was suffering on the inside."
Goldsmith said that "the last straw" precipitating his suicide attempt occurred after his brigade was issued with stop loss orders. Stop-loss policy, or the involuntary extension of duty for service members, was frequently invoked in the years after 9/11 and affected an estimated 58,000 soldiers until its use was stemmed shortly after President Barack Obama took office in 2008. For Goldsmith, a stop-loss order meant another 16 months in Iraq, and the thought triggered panic attacks at work that led to his adjustment disorder diagnoses.
In the months after his suicide attempt and discharge, Goldsmith continued to drink heavily and spent all of his savings. But with prompting from his mother, Goldsmith eventually sought psychiatric help at the VA; he was diagnosed with PTSD in November 2007. Without the help of VA doctors and his family, Goldsmith says, he would have likely died. Now 30 years old and a political science student at Columbia University, Goldsmith continues pushing for the Veterans Fairness Act, which has stalled in the Senate since its introduction last June.
'We know there are folks who are falling through the cracks.'
Senator Gary Peters, a Democrat from Michigan and a Navy Reserve officer who introduced the bill, told VICE News that the bill is intended to rectify the "gross injustice of unfair dismissals." He says there's also a need for better training for members of the military, including commanders, in recognizing the symptoms of PTSD.
"The VA has been specifically trained and we work very hard to make sure people who have those symptoms who are suffering have been diagnosed and get the care that they deserve and need," Peters said. "But we know there are folks who are falling through the cracks."
An attempt to attach the bill to the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2016 failed, but Peters says it has bipartisanship support.
"Stand-alone bills don't move as quickly as any of us like in the Senate, so we need have a vehicle that we can attach it to," he said. "But that doesn't mean we're going to stop. We're going to continue to build support so that when we have the proper vehicle, we'll be able to attach this language to it."
This month, a companion bill will also be introduced to the House — likely in the last week of February, according to a spokesman for the bill's chief sponsor, Republican Mike Coffman of Colorado. Coffman, who is a Marine Corps combat veteran and member of the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs committees, is also introducing a bill this month that would allow the VA to conduct an initial mental health assessment, and offer counseling and other services for veterans with other-than-honorable discharges who are currently ineligible for services.
"We owe it to our nation's veterans to address this crisis," Coffman wrote in an op-ed in the Denver Post February 6.
Goldsmith's appeals of his less-than-honorable discharge have been rejected twice by a review board; he says the Army argued that he could not prove he acquired the disorder while serving in the military, and that he may have developed it in the three months between his discharge in August and his PTSD diagnosis in November. He is appealing again while also continuing to fight for passage of the bill.
"It's simply asking for a more fair appeals process, so it's shifting the burden of proof in favor of the vet if they have PTSD or TBI and that diagnosis materially contributed to the circumstances of their discharge," he said. "That's essentially legalese for saying, 'People shouldn't be punished for coming home all fucked up.'"
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