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Feb. 12, 2009
By Michael de Yoanna and Mark Benjamin
John Needham returned from Iraq, suffering from combat stress. If he had received proper care, would he be standing trial for murder?
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a weeklong investigative series called “Coming Home.” Read a note written by John Needham here. You can also read the introduction to the series, and the first and second installments, which appeared Monday and Tuesday.
John Needham at home in San Clemente, Calif., in January 2007, during a two-week leave from his tour of duty in Iraq.
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Fellow soldiers in Iraq called John Wiley Needham “Needhammer” for his toughness. They also saw him as somehow charmed, because the tall blond Army private from Southern California always seemed to be just far enough away from danger. People died next to Needham; Needham survived.
But “Needhammer” was not indestructible after all. He struggled with the aftereffects of the explosions he’d dodged. He survived a suicide attempt while in Iraq, and, after being shipped out of the country in 2007, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury. He took so many prescription meds he could barely hold his head up. According to Needham’s father, Mike, the Army’s response to the soldier’s problems was punishment rather than treatment.
Last year, just weeks after his discharge, he allegedly beat 19-year-old aspiring model Jacqwelyn Villagomez to death in his California condo.
A Salon investigation has identified several trends involving Fort Carson soldiers who became homicidal. There are failures by healthcare workers and commanders to provide proper care to soldiers struggling with hidden wounds such as PTSD and brain injuries. There is a tendency to overmedicate soldiers struggling with stress or other injuries. Behind it all is an Army culture that punishes problematic soldiers instead of aiding them.
Needham is one of at least 13 current or former Fort Carson soldiers to serve in Iraq and then be convicted, accused or linked to a murder in the past four years. Victims like Villagomez who died at the hands of Fort Carson-based soldiers might be alive today if the Army had played closer attention to their mental state, providing necessary healthcare. In another story in the “Coming Home” series that will be published tomorrow, Salon details the cases of several soldiers involved in homicides whose preexisting problems raise the question of whether they should ever have worn a uniform. The story of John Needham, however, is the story of a young man who seemed stable and unscarred until he had driven down too many bomb-laden roads in Iraq.
In 2006, Needham was a happy-go-lucky house-painter with a friendly smile, 6-foot-2 and a sturdy 210 pounds. The 23-year-old entered surfing competitions, played golf, wrote songs on his guitar and dabbled in painting pictures. In his family, he was the funny guy. “John was so full of life,” says his father, Mike Needham.
He was also a patriot who, like his dad before him, enlisted in the Army. In October 2006, not long after basic training, John Needham was sent to Iraq. He was first attached to 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, patrolling a sector in Baghdad rife with insurgents.
Needham saw some action, but he seemed to be holding up. By January 2007, he even got to go home. The Army was preparing for the troop surge and Needham was told that if he didn’t take leave, he might not get another chance. So he went back to San Clemente, Calif., spending time with his family and riding the waves.
In photos from his leave, Needham is smiling. Yet when the camera wasn’t aimed at him, his father says, John was shaky. But it didn’t appear to be a big deal. Just some jitters. Needham seemed to be coping.
Two weeks later, Needham returned to Iraq and then in March or April was reassigned to the Fort Carson-based 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry. With the 2-12, he patrolled al-Dora, a Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad.
It was a violent area. In June, Needham and a group of soldiers stopped a car. Inside sat two suspected insurgents. Needham approached with his rifle in the “low and ready” position, aiming it at the face of one of the men, just in case. Needham ordered one of the men to get out.
As the man slid out, Needham noticed he was holding a grenade. The pin had been pulled.
“Grenade!” Needham shouted.
Then he pulled the trigger of his rifle, hitting the insurgent several times in the chest and finally in the head. As the man went down, the grenade rolled toward Needham, who was running to his Humvee.
“The explosion at such a close range was incredible,” Needham wrote to his father in an e-mail following the incident. It briefly knocked him out.
He would receive an Army Commendation Medal for actions to save his comrades and a Purple Heart because shrapnel entered his legs, too deep to be removed. He would also begin to suffer from chronic back pain.
While Needham patrolled al-Dora with the 2-12, improvised-explosive devices were an ongoing threat. He brought home photos from the spring and summer of 2007 that showed the gore he saw with the 2-12. One picture showed a dead body, still dressed in traditional Iraqi clothing, with a
rotting skull for a head. Another picture showed an Iraqi with the top part of his head blown off, covered in blood, eyes open, his body placed in a black bag alongside his brains.
Much later, after Needham had left Iraq and was undergoing medical evaluation, one of his commanding officers in Iraq would assure the evaluators that during his combat tour Needham had seen the sorts of things that wound minds. Needham, wrote Capt. Jim Keirsey in a March 2008 e-mail, “encounter[ed] and witness[ed] situations that may contribute to” PTSD. “Every soldier in the unit saw civilians injured by road side bombs, dead bodies from civilians killed from sectarian strife, and most significantly, every soldier patrolled daily under the threat of injury or death” from an improvised-explosive device.
While still in Iraq, Needham sought help. He wrote to his father that he saw a doctor and was given a small handful of Zoloft pills, which treat depression and anxiety, and Ambien for sleeplessness. It didn’t seem to work. “I’m stressed out to the point of completely losing it,” Needham later wrote in an e-mail to his father. “The squad leader brushed me off and said suck it up.”
Needham began to self-medicate with large amounts of alcohol.
In a MySpace blog post in August of 2007, Needham was showing the strains of war. The post, typos included, reads: “I’m falling apart by the seams it seems the days here bleed into each other I have to find the will to live man I miss my brothers. These walls are caving in my despair wraps me in its web, I feel I’m sinking in, throw me a lifesaver throw me a life worth living. I’m apart of death I am death this is hard to admit but this shits getting old. I fall asleep and pray I die before I wake. The heat is unbearable I wish this experience to wash from me to melt away with the quickness it came, I yearn for the pacific to cool me to refresh every positive ion in me. I want it so bad I would trade a thousand waking moments to be there with you to just be near. The sreets here fill with filth and the stray dogs resemble the locals with their torn pride beaten and batter haggard life that falls into this abyss please tell me you miss me let me know you realized I was gone but not forgotten. With every wish and prayer and every meditation I get closer to home i close my eyes”
And on Sept. 18, 2007, he finally fell apart. As he and a comrade drowned their troubles in booze, Needham pulled out a gun and pointed it at his own head. The friend jumped at Needham.
“Blam!” The bullet hit the wall.
It was a suicide attempt, Needham’s medical records say. A crowd gathered. Needham got into a fight. Things got confusing.
Needham seemed to need intervention more than ever now. But he was not sent for a psychiatric consultation. Instead, he was punished — confined. “They keep me locked up in this room and if I need food or water I have to have two guards with me,” he wrote to his father after 18 days.
John Needham was told that he could face charges and possible time in military prison for illegal discharge of a weapon.
It was then that Mike Needham realized that getting help for his son was going to be a struggle. “There were a number of things that prevented John from getting care, starting after his suicide attempt in Iraq.”
Mike Needham reached Lt. Col. Stephen Michael, the 2-12’s top commander, via phone in Iraq. “After he tried to kill himself, they said he was a criminal. I couldn’t believe it. I called his commander to try to say that John might be suffering from combat stress. I offered him literature. [Lt. Col. Michael] told me John deserved to be in military prison. When I argued, he said, ‘Fuck off,’ and hung up the phone.”
Needham’s father then reached out to Fort Carson’s inspector general, a neutral arbiter of disputes. John finally got medical intervention. He was shipped to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, and then to the Washington, D.C., area, where he received care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Depression was added to his list of ills.
“I don’t know what would have happened to him if I hadn’t intervened,” Mike Needham said. “They made me fight them just so that he could receive help. This is so backwards, I thought. He was entitled to decent care for everything he had already done for his country.”
From Maryland, Needham was sent to Colorado. Salon was at Denver International Airport when Needham arrived in the middle of November 2007. There, Needham was greeted by Fort Carson commanders. Waiting in the wings was Georg-Andreas Pogany, then an investigator for the advocacy organization Veterans for America. At Mike Needham’s behest, Pogany became an advocate for the Needham family, advising John Needham of his right to receive mental healthcare.
It was a tense time. Needham’s father remembers calling Col. Kelly A. Wolgast, the nurse who commands Evans hospital at Fort Carson. He wanted to know why his son was on 12 medications. He was worried about the charges his son faced [for the suicide attempt], although they never came to fruition. He just wanted assurances that his son would get the best care available.
“She just said that care at Evans was fine when I was telling her what happened to my son,” Mike Needham said. “It was like she wasn’t listening.”
While at Fort Carson, Needham, advised by Pogany, kept notes about his treatment. On Nov. 16, 2007, Needham, still wondering if he’d face charges stemming from his suicide attempt in Iraq, wrote in black pen that he felt drowsy and laid his head on a desk. According to Needham’s notes, a staff sergeant found him there and yelled, “This is no time to sleep.” The sergeant then threatened Needham, saying “I will break your fucking face.” Needham told the sergeant to go ahead. The sergeant closed in, inches from Needham’s face, and “called me a pussy and a scared little kid,” Needham wrote.
Weeks later, during a visit with his family in California, Needham reinjured his back. He was brought to Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and then received an official transfer from Fort Carson to the medical center.
Once with the Army’s warrior transition unit at the medical center, Needham had trouble meeting the Army’s standards. Needham was charged with “patterns of misconduct” for failing to appear in formation, insubordination to superiors, and other problems. To Mike Needham, it seemed like the Army, which had acknowledged that John had PTSD, was now punishing his son for displaying the symptoms.
Nonetheless, on July 14, 2008, Needham received an honorable discharge.
Then the real headache began. The Army’s disability ratings system, which assigns percentages to gauge a soldier’s level of disability on a scale of zero to 100 percent, gave Needham a 20 percent rating for his back and just 10 percent for his PTSD, according to his medical records.
By law, Needham should have received 50 percentage points for PTSD alone. The difference in scores is an important detail, one that might have saved Villagomez. If Needham had received a total score of 50 on the disability scale — which a PTSD diagnosis by itself should’ve guaranteed — he could have received personalized support for his day-to-day issues, whether psychological, physical, financial or career. He also would be guaranteed lifetime military health benefits. With 10 points for PTSD and only 30 overall, he didn’t get the one-on-one attention he needed to transition back to civilian life.
At one point he freaked out, “naked, whimpering,” his father says. “But we couldn’t get him everything he needed psychiatrically.”
Less than two months after his discharge, on Sept. 1, 2008, Needham clashed with Villagomez in his San Clemente condo, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. It began when Villagomez physically fought with another woman in the residence. Needham broke up the fight, calling 911 to report it. The woman left, but Villagomez stayed with Needham.
When officers arrived, Needham allegedly attacked them at his door while nude and drunk. Officers subdued the 25-year-old with a Taser.
They discovered Villagomez unconscious, severely beaten and barely breathing. Rescuers rushed her to the hospital, but they were too late.
“We believe what happened was he had a flashback and lost control,” Needham’s father says. “Something triggered it, as if he felt he was back in Iraq and being attacked.”
Needham isn’t the only soldier to be discharged with a PTSD rating lower than the 50 points that the law requires for full benefits, according to a class-action lawsuit by the National Veterans Legal Services Program. The independent nonprofit, which fights to see that the nation’s 25 million military personnel and veterans receive benefits to which they are entitled, alleges that “thousands” of Iraq war veterans with PTSD are currently being denied care through Veterans Affairs because they were discharged with illegal PTSD ratings. The Army recently acknowledged the law in an Oct. 14, 2008, Defense Department directive, ordering that soldiers discharged with PTSD receive the proper rating.
Bart Stichman, a co-executive director for NVLSP, wasn’t surprised to hear about problems at Fort Carson, saying his office is aware of them.
“Untreated post-traumatic stress disorder is bound to create bad behavior,” Stichman said. “Often what happens is if soldiers can’t find help, they medicate themselves with alcohol or drugs and it leads to problems.”
Col. Wolgast of Evans hospital declined to comment on Needham’s case — or any others — citing medical privacy laws. Maj. Gen. Mark Graham assembled a task force late last year to explore an unspecified number of cases, many of which have shocked Colorado Springs. The task force is delving into all the aspects of the soldier’s histories — “not just healthcare,” said Wolgast, who is also a member.
“There is no evidence that we find that anything is a trend right now for those soldiers,” she added.
Asked whether it is appropriate for commanders to downplay or ignore the possible hidden wounds of war, such as PTSD, Wolgast said no, and doesn’t see it as a problem among Fort Carson’s troops. “I don’t think anyone is out to maliciously go after a soldier. I don’t believe that at all.”
She added, however, that if allegations that soldiers with mental injuries were mistreated by commanders proved true, the Army would then “clearly help that young leader understand a better way of going about taking care of that soldier.”
While Wolgast declines to link soldier healthcare and violent crimes to PTSD, Sheilagh McAteer, a Colorado public defender and a member of a federal Health and Human Services task force exploring ways to divert combat veterans who resort to crime, sees compelling links.
McAteer says soldiers returning home after traumatic war experiences are struggling with violence. Some are winding up in prison and Army officials need to wake up and recognize the problem, she adds.
So far, though, the Army is “refusing to take responsibility,” McAteer says. “That’s a problem.”
John Needham is now sitting in the Orange County Jail, awaiting trial for murder. He has pleaded not guilty. Bail has been set at $1 million. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for next month. Salon’s attempts to reach Needham in jail were unsuccessful.