The Legal Battlefield

The Few. The Proud. The Marines are an elite branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, tasked with protecting their country’s interest internationally. However, when at home, their battles are very much different, especially for those with mental illness, reports The War Horse in an article posted this month. When Lance Corporal Kameron Duval, inebriated, wandering in the river, and planning to take his own life, accidentally injured a fellow marine, he was interrogated without an attorney and charged with a felony, without even being given a fresh change of clothes. He was locked up for 240 days and denied treatment. Ever since he was arrested, professionals for both the prosecution and defense agreed that Duval had severe PTSD, but the Marines did not drop the charges, claiming that Duval was simply making trouble and faking mental illness to get out of trouble. The Marines even tried to have a doctor testify against him, an act which would have violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protected medical information. The Marines, however, maintained that “Evidentiary rules are separate and distinct from HIPAA.” Duval had sought psychiatric help before, but therapy sessions were not helpful, and it felt like the military did not actually care about his mental health, since he was scheduled to be discharged soon. 

An investigation found that Duval’s commander was fostering a hostile work environment: verbally abusing, harassing, and unjustly relieving her subordinates and forcing them to punish Marines, as well as lying in official statements. During a training exercise in a blizzard, she prevented a Maintenance Battalion from delivering supplies to starving Marines, claiming that they were not sufficiently trained for the weather. However, the Maintenance Battalion had had training, and the commander was just looking for an excuse not to be held responsible for any potential incidents. Marines could not dispute her authority, and she was never punished for her actions. Out of the hundreds of Marines interviewed, the only people who had anything good to say about her were the most senior officers, whose performance reviews were signed by none other than the commander herself. The investigation suggested that the commander be fired and punished, but she was only given a slap on the wrist and kept her job.

Duval is not alone: many other Marines were brutally treated, unjustly punished, and their careers ended by a system designed to deny them help and recourse. Major Anna Rubio-Fleischer had experienced multiple traumas in her career as a marine: being thrown over a desk by an officer and told that she should “watch the tone of her voice,” being sexually assaulted, and being abandoned by the administration. When Rubio-Fleischer tried to kill herself, the Marines tried to have her interrogated, but thankfully were denied by the hospital staff. Rubio-Fleischer was not mentally capable of answering inquiries; the leadership was just trying to find a reason to get rid of her. Despite doctors’ orders, Rubio-Fleischer’s superiors required her to resume full duties, and a few days later she made a second suicide attempt after having been denied vacation. After being released from the hospital, she was transferred to a Wounded Warrior Battalion, which she was fine with, since being a marine was a negative experience. However, she was given an adverse performance review which called her “derelict in her duties as a leader,” even though her few absences from work were excused absences to take her special needs child to medical appointments. This performance review could negatively affect her future employment opportunities and demonstrates that the Marines were just looking for ways to hurt Rubio-Fleischer, since they couldn’t charge her with anything.

Veteran Corporal Thae Ohu was recently threatened with a gag order because she spoke up about the failed investigation of her sexual abuse allegations and the legal controversy surrounding her mental illness. Like Duval and Rubio-Fleischer, Ohu sought help multiple times, having been admitted to the hospital several times, diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, and recommended for medical retirement. In a psychotic episode, Ohu attacked her boyfriend and was charged with attempted murder. Her officer was offered multiple choices (the decision was not left up to the court) for how her case should be handled – medical retirement, administrative separation, or punitive discharge. Of course, her officer chose the latter, denying her the all the benefits of veterans, including mental health care. Ohu was imprisoned in an “anti-suicide cell”, where she was denied a Bible and sufficient menstrual pads, clothing, and bedding. The toilet was literally a small hole in the ground, and she had to push her feces through the holes – with her bare fingers. She wasn’t given enough toilet paper and wasn’t allowed to wash her hands before eating food for which she was also denied utensils. The “anti-suicide cell” only served to promote suicidal ideation, and over and over she tried to saw off her legs using the threads of her nylon tunic. Even after leaving confinement, Ohu was denied mental health treatment. Not only did Ohu’s punishment permanently affect career, but it also left an indelible psychological scar.

If this article does not effectively demonstrate the extent to which the military judicial system has failed, nothing will. Mental health treatment doesn’t exist in the military, even if it’s serious: if you have mental illness in the Marines, you are doomed from the very start. Duval, Rubio-Fleischer, and Ohu all visibly needed help, but none was given. In Rubio-Fleischer’s case, the Marines followed none of the doctors’ orders after she had tried to kill herself, and even took away her vacation – almost as if they were trying to cause another incident. And, when an incident ocurred, as it inevitably would, the Marines did everything in their power to destroy her, even going so far as, in Duval’s case, to toe the line of the HIPAA or claim something as ridiculous as faking mental illness. Marines with mental illness are seen as nothing more than liabilities. In fact, it seems to me that some of the punishments meted out to these three former Marines were motivated not so much by a misguided sense of legal duty or even lazy expedience, but rather by a deep hatred and disgust. When given the role of judge, jury, and executioner, Ohu’s officer delivered the harshest possible sentence, sending her to the accursed “anti-suicide cell”. The brusque interrogation and treatment of Duval was unnecessary. The Marines even did their best to ruin Rubio-Fleischer’s life with a bad performance review, even though at that point she was already out of their hair. I can’t say with absolute certainty that some of these injustices were motivated by stigma, but it definitely played a role.

This problem is not limited to mental health – the faults within the military judicial system go far deeper. The case of Duval’s autocratic commander and the physical, verbal, and sexual abuse of Rubio-Fleischer and Ohu are just some examples among many. The Marines’ ability to skirt federal law and Ohu’s commander’s ability to override judicial rulings are yet more issues with this system. To be blunt, the military is an institution where prejudices can run wild. What the Marines needs is accountability: accountability of its officers, accountability of its administrators, and accountability of its judical system. Accountability not just to the law, but to the moral standards of the public, in order to make it harder for civil rights violations to triumph and to prevent stigma towards mental illness from creating such a hostile environment. We also need to stop thinking of the military as a separate bubble. It’s a large institution, one that is most definitely not exempt from scrutiny. The irony is, the military might require more mental health services than any other government institution, due to its strenuous requirements and environment. Maintaining discipline and order within the military is a difficult task, but it should not come at the cost of careful, objective consideration of the facts with a particular emphasis on mental health.

mkahmon

I'm a high school student dedicated to stimulating conversation around mental health.

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