The year was 1951. The Korean “police action” was raging. I was a draftee NCO in a military police unit safely nestled in a major American city. But my comrades and I lived each day under the long, dark shadow of being shipped out to fight in a frozen country most of us couldn’t find on a map.
Like most army units, my company had a “welfare fund” – money collected from our fellow troops, to be used for their benefit: for Christmas parties, summer barbeques, gifts for newly married buddies, and suchlike.
The fund had to have a treasurer –someone to collect, hold and account for the money. But no one wanted the job. More paperwork was exactly what none of us needed.
But one of us had a stroke of genius. We would go sell the idea to the private we all referred to as “The Idiot.” We would persuade him that being “The Treasurer” would get him known and enhance his chances of promotion.
The Idiot was good kid, but strange. I mean really strange. His buddies thought he was “a little crazy.” He was alternately depressed and euphoric, pastoral and warlike. He would arrive back at our base after a three-day pass with a big wide toothy grin and enough doughnuts for the whole company. Five minutes later he would be on the brink of apoplexy, raging against the army, the draft, his parents, the Koreans. Five minutes after that he would be sitting alone in a corner of our barracks, staring morosely at his boots for an hour, seemingly oblivious to things going on around him. After that hour, we would see him ebulliently bounding down the aisle between the beds, trumpeting some brilliant new idea to remake the military. And five minutes later, he would be smashing furniture and throwing boots and chairs at his comrades. The Idiot’s behaviors were as unpredictable as they were bizarre.
But he was our only candidate. Long story short: We got him to take the treasurer’s job, and he dutifully gave us a monthly accounting of how much money was in our welfare fund, receipts for what was spent, and a report on likely future expenses.
The rest of us, if we thought about it at all, were happy with our solution. We thought we’d pulled off a coup. Until December, that is, just before our company Christmas party. It was then The Idiot told us we couldn’t have a Christmas party that year, but that this was really a good thing because he’d spent our money buying toys for poor kids.
The Idiot was court martialed, spent a year in the stockade (Army-speak for jail), and dishonorably discharged.
I haven’t thought about that episode in more than half a century. But that’s where my mind went as I read the harrowing story of 1st Lieutenant Elizabeth Whiteside.
Though described by one of her Iraq comrades as “A Soldier’s Officer,” Lt. Whiteside may finally learn this week whether she will be treated for severe mental illness and given the appropriate benefits to pay for her care – or court-martialed and face the possibility of life in prison.
The charges now being considered against her: Attempting suicide and endangering the life of another soldier while serving in Iraq.
The military prosecutor, Maj. Stefan Wolfe, argues that, even after seven years of exemplary service, the 25-year-old Army reservist should be court-martialed. Under military law, soldiers who attempt suicide can be prosecuted because their action affects unit order and discipline and discredits the armed forces.
In Whiteside’s case, prosecutors consider her mental illness "an excuse" for criminal conduct. But the military psychiatrists at Walter Reed who examined her after she recovered from her self-inflicted gunshot wound have diagnosed her with a severe mental disorder, possibly triggered by the stresses of a war zone.
The prosecutor has warned Whiteside's lawyer of the risk of using a "psychobabble" defense. But a senior psychiatrist at Walter Reed, asked to justify his diagnosis of severe mental illness, responded angrily: "I'm not here to play legal games. I am here out of the genuine concern for a human being that's breaking and that is broken. She has a severe and significant illness. Let's treat her as a human being, for Christ's sake!"
At one point, Whiteside requested that she be allowed to resign to avoid a court-martial. But the result of that course would mean having to spend the rest of her life explaining why she didn’t receive an honorable discharge, living with the still-present stigma being mentally ill – and probably losing her medical care and benefits.
Walter Reed’s commander, Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, a physician and now Army surgeon general, agrees. He said, "This officer has a demonstrably severe depression which manifested itself . . . as a psychotic, self-destructive episode. . .. Resignation in lieu of court-martial eliminates all of the benefits of medical support this officer deserves after seven years of credible and honorable service."