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Soldier accused in firefight with police a prisoner to PTSD

RALEIGH, N.C. — There were shouts and footsteps in the darkness, then a banging on the door.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Eisenhauer rose from his mattress on the floor of his apartment in Fayetteville, N.C. He reached under the bedding for his Glock 19 pistol. He fired into the night.

The noises had come from firefighters responding to a minor fire Jan. 13. But to Eisenhauer, a veteran of two Afghanistan combat tours diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, the firefighters were insurgents storming his position.

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Eisenhauer’s ensuing gun battle with police lasted nearly two hours. He was shot in the face, chest and thigh, finally passing out from blood loss. When he was first able to speak in a hospital two days later, according to his lawyer, he asked a nurse: “Who’s got the roof?”

Now Eisenhauer is inmate No. 1304704 in Raleigh’s Central Prison. He faces 17 counts of attempted murder of firefighters and police officers, nine counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and other charges. No firefighters or police were hit.

In an unusual legal move, the soldier’s lawyer, Mark L. Waple, and mother have asked the military to take over prosecution of his case. They say Central Prison cannot provide the treatment the Pentagon mandates for soldiers diagnosed with PTSD — only the military can.

A soldier’s request for military prosecution while in civilian custody is rare but not unprecedented, said Victor M. Hansen, a law professor at New England Law in Boston, and a former military lawyer. The process is complicated, he said, and both civilian and military authorities often resist.

Thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are incarcerated in civilian jails and prisons, many without access to the type of PTSD treatments mandated by the military. The most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics survey put the number of incarcerated veterans at 140,000 in 2004.

Though the survey said incarceration rates for male veterans are lower than for non-veterans, the numbers are likely to increase as more service members return from overseas combat.

A Fort Bragg spokesman, Col. Kevin Arata, said base legal authorities have carefully considered Waple’s request but will not assume jurisdiction “because Cumberland County is actively pursuing this case.”

Billy West, district attorney in Cumberland County, near Fort Bragg, did not respond to a request for comment.

Waple insists that PTSD therapy is Eisenhauer’s best hope at getting the help he needs. The Army is more experienced at treating combat trauma than are therapists, he said.

Further, Waple said, the soldier’s PTSD “caused or contributed to the events” in January. The military is legally obligated to treat active-duty soldiers — even those charged with serious crimes, he said.

“The Army espouses a philosophy of no soldier left behind,” Waple said. “For the Army not to take jurisdiction over this case violates that philosophy. That’s the bottom line.”

Waple said he believes the military will take the case if he can persuade civilian prosecutors to release jurisdiction.

The shooting came while Eisenhauer was assigned to Fort Bragg’s Warrior Transition Battalion, which provides long-term care to wounded or injured soldiers. He entered the unit last August, but his mother, Dawn Erickson, said he received virtually no PTSD treatment beyond a weekly group therapy session — even though he was diagnosed as “high risk” to himself or others.

Instead, she said, Eisenhauer, 30, was overloaded with powerful drugs — and scheduled to begin a 12-week intensive PTSD therapy program away from Fort Bragg this spring.

“‘Why did they wait from last August to the next spring to schedule him for the therapy he needed?” Erickson asked in an interview near Central Prison. “He wasn’t getting any of the therapies the military recommends for PTSD. All they did was pump him full of painkillers.”

Waple said two private psychiatrists who have examined Eisenhauer and his medical records said the soldier believed he was under insurgent attack the night of the shooting.

Eisenhauer “was in very bad shape and inclined for reality becoming discontinuous, with the flashback of insurgents rushing in, this time towards his door,” one psychiatrist wrote to Waple.

Further, the soldier was deeply troubled by the loss of close friends to insurgents. After one truck bomb attack, his mother said, he helped collect body parts of buddies.

Waple said he found a journal entry in Eisenhauer’s apartment that read: “And so another day around people I don’t know with loud bangs … that bring me to my flashbacks.”

In another entry, Eisenhauer wrote that he was hyperventilating and crying almost daily: “I feel withdrawn like a caged lion.”

Veterans’ groups and service members have complained of inadequate PTSD treatment as the number of cases from Iraq and Afghanistan — more than 210,000 treated by Veterans Affairs alone — has overwhelmed the agency. Wait times for treatment are so long that the VA recently posted job notices for nearly 2,000 more mental health clinicians and support staff.

Earlier this year, soldiers and their spouses complained at a public meeting with Fort Bragg authorities about poor medical treatment at the Warrior Transition Battalion. In February, the Fort Bragg commander, Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, ordered the base inspector general to conduct a “thorough inspection” of the unit.

The inspector general reported that his investigation found no improper prescribing of drugs. But he said he did find several areas that needed improvement, including cadre leadership and training, and administrative procedures.

Central Prison has done a good job treating Eisenhauer’s physical wounds, Waple said. The attorney had negotiated with prosecutors to transfer Eisenhauer there from the smaller Cumberland County jail in Fayetteville.

But the prison psychiatrist, in a letter to the lawyer, said Central cannot provide adequate PTSD treatment — and predicted that Eisenhauer’s condition would deteriorate in prison. Also untreated is a traumatic brain injury from explosions in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors would not have to drop charges for the military to take the case, said Hansen, the law professor. But because jurisdictional issues are normally ironed out beforehand, pending civilian charges would pose “a logistical nightmare.”

And even if Eisenhauer is transferred to the military system, Hansen said, there is no guarantee he would receive PTSD treatment.

“In my experience, the military doesn’t fall all over itself to provide treatment to a criminal defendant,” Hansen said.

Erickson, who works for a human rights group in Afghanistan, visited her son earlier this month before flying back to Kabul. Even in prison, far from the war, he still has flashbacks and nightmares.

“He’s wondering why the Army abandoned him,” she said.

Erickson now believes the Army has twice failed her son — by not treating his PTSD before the shooting, and by failing to treat him now.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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