NASHVILLE, Tenn. – AWOL soldier Jeff Hanks said he walked away from the Army in the middle of a deployment because his problems with anxiety and stress have been ignored. Now on Veterans Day, he's coming back to face the consequences.
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The 30-year-old Army infantryman said he has post-traumatic stress disorder that he has experienced since his 2008 tour in Iraq. He tried to seek treatment at Fort Campbell last month during his mid-tour leave from Afghanistan. When his commanders failed to help and told him he would have to immediately go back, he instead went home to North Carolina, he said.
The specialist could face less-than-honorable discharge or jail when he turns himself in Thursday.
"I have no problem going back to Afghanistan, but I need help," he said in a phone interview from his home in White Lake, N.C.
Hanks said he chose to return on Veterans Day, usually reserved for honoring military service, because he didn't want to exceed 30 days of being AWOL and face the more serious charge of desertion. His actions and the timing are supported by Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Hanks' unit command has discretion over what will happen to him when he turns himself in, but he could face a court-martial and jail time if convicted, Fort Campbell spokesman Rick Rzepka said.
"AWOL and desertion is a self-centered act," Rzepka said. "It doesn't only affect the soldier, but in a time of war puts other soldiers at risk."
Hanks said he understands that his actions could be considered disrespectful to other veterans, but said the military will continue to see high rates of suicide and substance abuse if it ignores soldiers' mental health problems.
"It's funny that those people would say, 'Why do you have to bring this up on Veterans Day?'" Hanks said. "So when is a good time to bring it up?"
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Rates of desertion among Army soldiers increased 80 percent between 2003 and 2007, a time of repeated and extended deployments because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hanks is part of the 101st Airborne Division, which has been deployed multiple times since 2002.
On his second day in Iraq, Hanks' vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. He was rocked, but survived with no apparent injuries.
He said he's more disturbed by seeing the aftermath of a car bomb outside his base in Balad that wounded many civilians, including a young Iraqi girl.
"Ever since then, I think about her all the time," he said. "I have had a lot of bad dreams, just reliving it."
When he returned from that tour, his wife, Christina, noticed that he was always on edge, looking around for IEDs and troubled by crowds at the local Walmart.
During his Afghanistan leave, his family urged him to get help, but he told them he wanted to wait until he finished his deployment. As he was saying his goodbye to his wife in the airport, a loud noise set off a panic attack and he had to be treated at an emergency room.
He returned to Fort Campbell to seek behavioral health treatment, but when he was referred for a meeting with a therapist, he said he was told by his commanders that they wanted him medically cleared to return to Afghanistan the next day. He spoke to a therapist for less than two minutes and was instructed to get marriage counseling when he came back.
Fort Campbell officials would not discuss the specifics of Hanks' case because of privacy rules.
Medical staff base their recommendations for deployment on the soldiers' conditions and their ability to perform duties safely, said Laura Boyd, a spokeswoman for Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital. But unit commanders ultimately make the decision regarding whether a soldier deploys, she said.
The stress has unsettled his marriage and his relationship with his children, Hanks said.
"I found her and my daughters to be overwhelming," he said. "I just thought, 'I don't want to deal with this.'"
He said he thought about seeking treatment when he returned from Iraq but was concerned about how his fellow soldiers would react.
"Once you seek it, you're kind of an outcast," he said. "They will ridicule you."
Hanks deployed to Afghanistan in May. He said he showed signs of a concussion and still suffers headaches after a mortar landed near him in August and he can't forget the sound of wounded soldiers screaming in agony as they waited for a medical evacuation.
Hanks said he has never before been in trouble during his military career.
Dr. Rebecca S. Valla, a civilian psychiatrist who volunteers with the Quaker House in North Carolina, said her assessment of Hanks is that he has post-traumatic stress disorder, a concussion and hearing loss. She said he could deteriorate if he returns to battle.
"I know not getting on a plane to Afghanistan would have its consequences, but I felt like I had to do it because they have pushed me into a corner," he said. "My health and my family is more important to me than anything."