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‘One Marine’s desperate scream for medical help’

COMMENTARY | May 12, 2009

A mother takes her anguish to Capitol Hill seeking to get intervention—help—for a decorated combat veteran who is suffering after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By George C. Wilson

This Memorial Day will find Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C, on a mission to help the thousands of mentally wounded service men and women coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is determined to transform a Marine mother’s anguish into a safety net for what he sees as a “tidal wave” of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen suf­fering from invisible wounds inflicted by combat.

“Congressman,” wrote Denise Becker in the letter about her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremy Smerud, 27, which launched Jones on his mission, “do you know what it is like to listen to your once-strong son cry like a baby at 3:30 in the morning three or four times a week because he can’t handle what he has been through; wanting to kill himself because he doesn’t feel he is worthy to live, because his brothers were shot down?

“Do you know what it’s like to be 1,500 miles away and not have the ability to help him through this, all the while wondering and asking why the Corps that he served so proudly … has written him off as worthless and weak and offer no help to prevent him from faltering further?”

Mrs. Becker, of Lansing, Iowa, a nurse for 18 years, asked these searing questions of Jones and other offi­cials whom she thought might aid her suffering son. In her view as a health professional, the combat her son went through during three tours in Iraq and Afghani­stan had left him with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She said he kept trying to block out the demons tearing apart his mind by getting blind drunk. He would call her at all hours of the night to tell her he was about to shoot himself, that he, not his buddy, should have been the one killed in Iraq when they stormed into a house.

The 66-year-old Jones — whose district includes the Marines’ Camp Lejeune — calls himself “a man of faith” and unashamedly invokes the blessing of God in his speeches on the House floor. He took Becker’s letter to heart. He demanded that Marine leaders come to his of­fice and explain why the Corps was not taking better care of the obviously stressed-out Smerud, an Eagle Scout who had never been in trouble in high school.

“The night before the Marine generals came to see me I got down on my knees and prayed to God that his case would touch their hearts,” Jones said. His visitors turned out to be Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, legislative assistant to the Marine commandant, and Brig. Gen. James Walker, staff judge advocate. They heard Jones out on March 12, promised to look into Smerud’s plight and did.

I read the summary of Smerud’s Marine career prepared by Marine Capt. John Diefenbach, his defense counsel for scrapes with the Corps.

The document struck me as one Marine’s desperate scream for medical help. Smerud was decorated several times for his performance in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan but kept turning to alcohol to block out his nightmares and other trauma.

A health professional at Lejeune recommended that Smerud be hospitalized for treatment, but the Marine Special Operations Command did not act on the recom­mendation. He was arrested several times for drunken driving by county cops near Lejeune. On Jan. 13, Pender County, N.C., sentenced the troubled Marine to serve two years for drunken driving and driving without a valid license.

Smerud’s Special Operations Command began pro­ceedings to kick him out of the Corps with a less-than-honorable discharge. That would disqualify Smerud from receiving many of the health care benefits that his mother believes he will need for the rest of his life.

“That hurt him more than anything,” said his mother of the decision to kick him out of the Corps with a less-than-honorable discharge. “I messed up,” she said he told her, “but I did my job for them.”

The veteran nurse said she sent a certified letter to her son’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Robert Tanzola, asking him 16 pointed questions, including these: “Why did Jeremy not receive the inpatient treatment that was recommended for him in January, 2008? Why, when the medical professional advised him to be placed in the Wounded Warrior Barracks, [was] the request declined by your command?”

She said her certified letter was sent back to her un­opened. I called Tanzola and asked him why he did this. His Special Operations Command, in response to my query, said they could find no record of Tanzola receiv­ing Becker’s letter.

Because of Jones’s prodding, Marine and state officials have entered the case. They are trying to get Smerud out of jail and into a treatment program at the Ports­mouth, Va., naval hospital. Rather than leave it at that, Jones through his spot on the Armed Services Commit­tee, wants to add language to the FY10 defense autho­rization bill to put a safety net under those suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Separation boards would have to give active-duty service members with those invisible wounds special consideration while ones already separated with less-than-honorable dis­charges could appeal those findings before a review board within the Defense secretary’s office.

The review board could grant honorable discharges so the vet­eran would become eligible for government health and other benefits. Such legislation would be hard to oppose. So Jones soon might be able to say, “Mission Accomplished.”

This column first appeared in National Journal’s CongressDailyAM.

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