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Week of 4.3.09

Transcript: "Coming Home?" & "Paradise Lost, Revisited"

BRANCACCIO: "Sorry, you have a pre-existing condition: no benefits."

Many Americans have heard that line over the years. And, that's what the army's been telling thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq. Our investigation has found lots of cases of soldiers who may need treatment for post-traumatic stress but who have been wrongfully discharged instead because the military claims the soldiers had problems before they ever saw battle.

Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Abigail Leonard have the latest in this story.

HINOJOSA: Last June, now reported that soldiers were returning from war only to fight another battle here at home, this one against the army itself. Thousands have been discharged, and denied the disability benefits they say they were promised when they enlisted.

Soldiers like Chuck Luther. A lot has happened to Luther since we first met him last summer. Back then, he was challenging what he says was a wrongful discharge from the army.

His story starts in 2006 when he was sent to Iraq as a combat scout. He had one of the most dangerous jobs in army. So dangerous, they're nicknamed "Bullet Catchers."

CHUCK LUTHER: We go before everybody else. So, we're actually sneakin' in—under cover of night, things like that, you know, watchin' the enemy when he doesn't know we're watchin.

HINOJOSA: Soon into his time there, the deadly reality of war hit hard. 4 soldiers in his unit, including a close friend—died in an IED blast. Devastated, he tried to stifle his emotions, but they eventually caught up with him. Luther began suffering from nightmares, anxiety, anger... Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD—a signature wound of the war in Iraq. But Luther was reluctant to get help.

CHUCK LUTHER: You just know that you don't go ask for help for mental health, because you lose security clearances. They look down on you. You know, they treat you bad. I thought well, I'm old enough. I can deal with it. It'll—it'll pass.

HINOJOSA: But it didn't pass and his symptoms got worse. Still, the army doctors who checked him out said not only was he fine, but that he was faking his symptoms. They claimed he was using the medical system to get out of work.

CHUCK LUTHER: I've never once in my military career been in trouble. I've never lied. I've never faked an injury, never malingered as they called it.

HINOJOSA: What happened next to Luther is shocking...doctors insisted that Chuck Luther's problems had nothing to do with the war. After 12 years of service, Luther was diagnosed with a personality disorder—a pre-existing mental illness.

CHUCK LUTHER: The mental physician, said, "Sergeant, they're gonna chapter you out with a 513 personality disorder."

HINOJOSA: Out of sheer desperation to get out of Iraq, he signed the discharge.... Luther didn't realize that meant he would have to pay the army back $13,000 in bonuses, and that he would lose his all disability benefits. He arrived home to Texas alone and without fanfare. Waiting in the rain for his wife to pick him up. His career as a solider was over.

CHUCK LUTHER: So that was my hero's welcome home. You know, that was givin' of my life 12 years to the army. That's what I got.

HINOJOSA: His family says it was hard to see him suffer.

NICKI LUTHER: He blames himself. But, it wasn't his fault. He thinks he should have been able to dust off and go on. And he just couldn't.

HINOJOSA: But after he came back, his family says he was prone to angry outbursts, even violence. At times, his 2 older children had to hold him back from hitting their mother. It was so upsetting for his daughter Alexa, she refused to wear his dog tags.

ALEXA LUTHER: I wore 'em like almost every day when he was gone. And then once he started doin' that stuff, I didn't hate him. But I just stopped wearing them.

HINOJOSA: Last year, when we spoke with Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the army's top psychiatrist, she acknowledged that sometimes, soldiers with mental health problems slip through the initial screening process.

COL. ELSPETH RITCHIE: Sometimes we don't know everything about a soldier. Sometimes the soldier doesn't tell us everything. And the problems may not become apparent until after they've been in for six months or a year.

HINOJOSA: Now, ten months later, it's becoming clear that the army's reluctance to recognize the staggering burden that PTSD is placing on American soldiers is, in some cases, having tragic consequences. Soldiers who served and survived are returning - only to take their own lives when they get back. And the numbers are startling: hundreds of soldiers are dying right here on American soil.

CARISSA PICARD: War doesn't end when a soldier comes home. That's just the beginning of the end.

HINOJOSA: Carissa Picard, a lawyer and wife of an army officer, founded a group called military spouses for change. We spoke with her last June, and even then she was worried about what could happen.

CARISSA PICARD: It's very distressing. I think that if it continues on the path that it's—it's on, we're going to see a rise in veteran suicides.

HINOJOSA: Tragically, Carissa Picard was right. Take the case of army Private Ryan Alderman. He was still a teenager when he left mulberry, Florida for Ramadi, Iraq, and reportedly served on 250 missions - seeing some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. When he returned...he brought back the mental scars of battle, and started suffering from anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks - all hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But just like Chuck Luther, the army doctors decided Alderman had a pre-existing personality disorder. The army began taking steps to discharge Alderman, while at the same time, his family says, they were denying him proper mental health care.

Salon magazine also investigated Alderman's case, reporting that by August of last year, Alderman was growing suicidal. A friend told salon that when Alderman went to his sergeant for help, the Sergeant said. "I wish you would just go ahead and kill yourself, it would save us a lot of paperwork." In a sworn statement last October, Alderman wrote, "I am seeking help but I feel like I'm not being treated right. I mean mental help. I struggle every day with it." 7 days later, he overdosed on a lethal cocktail of 8 different prescription drugs. The army ruled his death a suicide. Ryan Alderman was just 21 years old. Alderman was one of at least 128 soldiers who took their own lives in 2008. It's the highest soldier suicide rate in almost three decades. And that has some of the top ranking members of the military very concerned.

CHIARELLI: The reality is we're dealing with a tired and stressed force and the effect in the most extreme cases has been unfortunately an increased incident of suicide.

HINOJOSA: In testimony before a senate subcommittee 2 weeks ago, army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli vowed to tackle the growing problem of soldier suicides.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also released a new public service announcement to encourage troubled soldiers to seek help.

GARY SINESE: VA cares about you, VA is here for you.

HINOJOSA: And President Obama has pledged to boost financing for veterans' health care. His fiscal 2010 budget - set to be approved this month - would increase the VA's budget by 15 billion dollars. That's the largest increase ever requested by a president.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You and your families have done your duty - now a grateful nation must do ours.

HINOJOSA: Obama also promised increased funding for treatment of active duty soldiers with PTSD.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We will continue building new wounded warrior facilities across America, and invest in new ways of identifying and treating the signature wounds of this war: Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, as well as other combat injuries.

HINOJOSA: But does that solve the problem of soldiers being misdiagnosed? In August, the military took steps to address this problem by revising its criteria for diagnosing pre-existing personality disorders. Now, before doctors can classify someone as having a personality disorder, they have to show they've considered the possibility that the soldier may have PTSD.

But even with the revised policies, many soldiers are still fighting to get the benefits and help they say they deserve. Last week, we made a return visit to Chuck Luther, to see how the changes impacted his case.

CHUCK LUTHER: The—the revision of the policy was great. It was a major victory.

HINOJOSA: But, Luther says, because he was discharged before the change, it doesn't apply to his case.

CHUCK LUTHER: I was discharged July of '07. And there was 6,000 other guys before me. And who knows how many more outside of our—our timeline of the military. So, what happens to us? I mean, really, what happens?

HINOJOSA: His wife Nicki says that waiting for the army to finally resolve his case has taken a toll on the family.

NICKI LUTHER: I'm frankly amazed that we're all still here. This you know almost two years later. I mean he could've killed himself. He wanted to several times. I wanted to several times.

HINOJOSA: There is good news though. Luther told us that after he was on this program last year, soldiers from across the country contacted him for help. He started working as an advocate for them and now oversees sixteen cases. He shares what he's learned and lobbies on their behalf. They have become his new comrades, fighting the same battle to reverse what they say are wrongful discharges.

And Luther hopes he can intervene before losing any of them.

CHUCK LUTHER: We're talking about time-sensitive human lives here. We're talking about in a matter of hours could mean life or death for a suicidal soldier. I mean, we need to intervene ASAP. I don't have time for the General to get in on Monday morning.

HINOJOSA: His family says they are starting to see signs that the man they remember, is returning. And they credit his advocacy work with helping to bring him back.

ALEXA LUTHER: Like since he started helping other people I think that's helped him heal as well. Cuz he gets mad still but he doesn't get violent, like I'm not scared any more and it's a really good feeling not to be scared any more - because I feel like I finally have my dad back now.

BRANCACCIO: Some scientists say they did get it wrong on global warming...with new evidence the effects are even worse than first thought. The data shows the ocean is rising more quickly than expected. Meanwhile, some South Pacific Islanders were *already* losing their battle to survive. These are the first of what's being called "climate change refugees,"

Correspondent Mona Iskander and producers Karla Murthy and Dan Logan have the latest.

ISKANDER: The remote pacific island nation of Kiribati is not the kind of place you stumble upon. You need a good reason to come here. Most of the foreigners that come to this poor country are aid workers. And as beautiful as the beaches are, only a handful of adventurous tourists make the journey here every year.

But we first visited Kiribati last summer because it's one of the first casualties of climate change.

TONG: It's too late for countries like us. If we could achieve zero emission as a planet, still we would go down.

ISKANDER: President Anote Tong never imagined he would be the leader of a country that's literally disappearing. The destructive effects of climate change like rising sea levels are not a distant concern, but are drowning his country right now.

TONG: The highest point is, what two meters about sea level. The next highest point is the top of the coconut tree. Is that where we gonna spend the rest of our life?

ISKANDER: The story of places like Kiribati carries added importance this year, with the big global warming summit approaching in December. At stake will be the fate of hundreds of millions of people who'll be left homeless due to climate change. They'll be known as the world's first "climate change refugees".

What does it say to you that the poorest and the smallest countries that are contributing the least to global warming, are the first ones to be affected by it.

TONG: I think extremely annoying, I think and—and frustrating, at least. And I—I think we have called on the international communities—from way back to do something about it. And I think the reality is, unless it hits you in the stomach, it means nothing to you. But for those who—for whom it is—this is the first time to visit islands like ours, it will come to them as a real shock.

ISKANDER: Kiribati is made up of 33 tiny islands. Put together, they're the size of Baltimore, but they're scattered across the equator over 2 million square miles.... making them specs in the sea. Today, about 100,000 people live there.

To get a sense of what most of the country is like, we traveled by boat to the remote village of Buariki. Here, the pace of life slows to the rhythms of the waves and the wind.

We get a tour from one of the leaders of the village, Tauu Tebibi. This is there Maneaba - it's like a town hall and every village has one. But this isn't where it was originally built. Tebibi takes us to where the town hall used to be. Out there.

How far back did the village actually go?

TEBIBI: That white area there used to be land, it's disappeared. Where the waves are, that was the beginning of our land.

ISKANDER: They had to move 21 homes, a church, even their soccer field, or they would have been swallowed by the sea. If the predictions are right, it will only get worse. Last month, over two thousand scientists gathered in Copenhagen to present their latest findings on climate change. They predicted that in the next century, sea levels will rise as much as three feet...twice as high as they had thought only two years earlier.

The reason for the big change is that their old prediction models didn't fully account for the melting polar ice caps.

Worldwide, over 600 million people - ten percent of the world's population - would be at risk for flooding. And Kiribati would be long gone.

MACKENZIE: I hope that, you know—the islands won't disappear. You know, that's my hope.

ISKANDER: Dr. Ueantabo Mackenzie runs the local branch of the University of South Pacific in Tarawa. In 2004, as part of a World Bank study, Mackenzie was asked to travel around the country to document changes to the environment and how that's affected people's lives.

MACKENZIE: People were telling me that they were frightened of the changes that were happening. Because, you know, the pace of change is sort of intensified in the last 30 years.

ISKANDER: He says, what the villagers told him was startling. Taro, a main food source, was getting harder to grow. Fish weren't as plentiful...and they were especially worried about what was happening to the coconut trees.

MACKENZIE: Well a coconut is—is in many parts of the Pacific—it's referred to as the tree of life. In Kiribati every—every part of the coconut is useful from its roots. People use for medicine. The trunk is used for building, and—the leaves are used for thatch and handicrafts All sorts of things.

ISKANDER: The villagers told him that the coconut trees were dying off - either from salt water incursion or because erosion undermined the root systems. We saw evidence of this all along the shores of Kiribati.

The worst was here - these lifeless tree stumps stand in a watery grave. Salt water is also affecting drinking water - the most crucial resource. People get their fresh water through wells, but now, those wells are drying up and getting contaminated with salt water. Scientists have said people on these islands could die of thirst before they drown from sea level rise.

Our translator and guide, Linda Uan, lives in Tarawa.

So you can't use this water anymore?

UAN: Not for cooking or drinking. It just got salty and it's remained salty.

ISKANDER: On top of that, dangerous storm surges have become more frequent and severe - eroding even more of the precious coastline. And some parts of Kiribati have been completely ruined by the rising sea. Riibeta Abeta works on climate change issues for the government.

ABETA: As you can see right now we are standing on a rock.

ISKANDER: Abeta tells us that people lived here. It was like any other village. But over the last 40 years, it's been slowly claimed by the salty sea. And that salt water killed everything, transforming the island into this barren landscape, which is underwater at high tide.

What about for you - I mean, what is it like to see this - it almost looks like the moon.

RIIBETA ABETA: It looks scary to me. You know. When you think of this island - this is what it could be like for all of our islands of Kiribati

ISKANDER: And that grim future has President Anote Tong very worried.

TONG: There was a sense of deep hopelessness for a while. What do we do?

ISKANDER: Tong decided to embark on a global campaign to appeal to the international community for help. In September, he visited the United Nations.

TONG: For many years we have tirelessly appealed to this organization to do something about climate change.

ISKANDER: In February, he urged world leaders to address climate change at the Dehli sustainable development summit in India. But so far, his pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

TONG: What's very frustrating is to sit in a meeting of international leaders and have a leader say, "No—no, I cannot do that, because it would affect my economic growth." You can understand how offensive that is. For us, it's not about economic growth. It's about our survival as a nation.

ISKANDER: So Tong might have to take matters into his own hands. While he was in India, he announced that he would consider buying land outside of Kiribati for his people to resettle.

In fact, another island nation threatened by climate change, the Maldives, has considered doing the same. The plan is to invest the country's tourism dollars in a trust fund to buy land elsewhere.

But compared to the Maldives, Kiribati gets only a few tourists each year... and its national coffers have been hit hard by the global recession.

Tong is also trying to convince other countries to take his people in. But he knows that won't be an easy sell.

TONG: If I say, you know—"Australia, are you ready to take 100 thousand of our people?" I guarantee you the immediate—answer is no. But if I say—"Are you ready to take 20 of our people who are very good—plumbers?" And the answer will be yes.

ISKANDER: The country of New Zealand has been one of the first places to say "yes". Every year, a few dozen Kiribati citizens are selected by lottery to resettle there.

Kaimanga Tenanoa and his family moved to this small cottage just north of Auckland. He's working at a pepper farm for the Southern Paprika Spice Company. Owner Joann McDonald employs sixty workers from Kiribati, and thinks it's a good idea to take in climate change refugees before it's too late.

MCDONALD: If we are going to wait until, like, 40 or 50 years, and then have an influx of thousands of unskilled people coming into the country, I mean, it's to our own detriment, isn't it?

ISKANDER: But convincing other countries to help has been more difficult. A public outcry over Australia's worker program for climate change refugees erupted after the first fifty workers from Tonga arrived in February. With Australian unemployment is on the rise, critics of the plan say that the country needs to focus on its own workforce.

That's a lot of controversy over just a few dozen workers. And as the politics of climate change continue to heat up, the planet is not getting any cooler.

In Copenhagen, scientists preparing for the Global Warming Summit are urging world leaders to come up with a massive plan to help the millions of climate change victims who are too poor to fend for themselves.

Kiribati would seem like an ideal candidate for aid. But the plight of the world's "have-nots" will likely take a back seat to the battle between the superpowers over who will pay the bill for fighting global warming.

The U.S. and China, the world's two biggest polluters, have been meeting about climate change over the past few months. But with the global recession to contend with, saving a remote island nation in the Pacific Ocean won't be the first item on anyone's agenda.

For Linda Uan, the prospect of her homeland disappearing forever... is unthinkable.

UAN: It's our culture, our lands, it's everything. Everything's going to be lost. How would you take that?

ISKANDER: It's emotional.

UAN: Losing one's land is emotional, there's no joking way about it; it is emotional.

BRANCACCIO: When our colleagues went to Kiribati they not only covered a story—they became one. Read about their experiences on the other side of the planet in Mona Iskander's personal online journal. Let pbs.org guide you to our site. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

WEB FEATURES
Coming Home?

Fighting the Army

Resources for Soldiers and Vets

Soliders' Stories

Paradise Lost, Revisited

Paradise Lost

Reporter's Notebook: Mona Iskander in Kiribati

Slideshow: Paradise Lost

Green Hawaii

Washed Up

Income Taxes: You Asked, He Answered

Sachs on the G20 Summit


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