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Amid two wars, the United States’ military is having a difficult time with mental illness. Extended terms and repeated deployments contribute to the rising mental illness and suicide rates in the military. One such example can be seen with Pfc. David Lawrence, 20. Lawrence allegedly shot and killed a captured Taliban member on last October. The prisoner was sleeping in his cell when he was killed. Lawrence faces premeditated murder charges and, if convicted, could face life in jail or execution. What does the military need to do differently?
For starters, it needs to take mental illness far more seriously. Should a person with a serious mental illness be in charge of prisoners or be given a gun? Lawrence was on a prescribed anti-depressant at the time of the shooting. In the weeks leading up to the shooting, Lawrence had revealed to family members that he was hearing voices. During a military court hearing held in December, testimony revealed that Lawrence had asked for and received help from mental health providers in Afghanistan. However, when he returned to his unit, he was not given any additional supervision. Instead, according to Lawrence’s civilian attorney James Culp, he received longer-than-normal shifts on guard duty.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, prosecutors suggested he was faking mental illness in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. They said Lawrence didn’t tell Army officials until after the shooting that he was hearing voices, and that after his arrest he spoke of “playing the crazy card.” At the hearing, prosecutors also described Lawrence as a zealot bent on killing the enemy. They said his words and actions indicated he deliberately arranged to be the only guard on duty at the prisoner’s cell.
This case is a representation of the problems with mental health in the military. “I think what this case shows is there’s these complex, contradictory needs in the military,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist and founder of Give An Hour, a nonprofit that provides free mental health services to returning troops and their families. “On the one hand … we have to look out for these folks,” she said. “On the other hand, we have to keep control of our forces.”
Lawrence’s father and attorney describe David as a young man with a family history of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is often triggered by a stressful event. Lawrence was badly shaken by the death of two friends in Afghanistan. Van Dahlen said a trained mental health provider will be able to determine whether David Lawrence has schizophrenia. “You can’t really fake being schizophrenic … not when an evaluator is looking at this,” she said.
Last month, Army psychiatrists certified Lawrence as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. Even so, the US Army has notified the Lawrence family they are proceeding with the court martial. If convicted, David Lawrence faces at the least life in prison up to the death penalty.