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'Fell through the cracks': Could Longview soldier's death have been avoided?

'Fell through the cracks': Could Longview soldier's death have been avoided?

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U.S. Army investigators have ruled that Spc. Mikayla Bragg of Longview died by her own hand in the line of duty in a guard tower last December in Afghanistan, where she was stationed despite a lengthy history of mental-health problems never communicated to her supervisors.

Bragg's commanding officers in Afghanistan were never told she had made an apparent previous suicide attempt while serving stateside in Fort Knox, even though officials at the Kentucky base knew of it, according to an Army investigation into her death.

Her supervisors in Afghanistan also never knew that she had spent 45 days in an Army hospital at Fort Knox for mental-health treatment just months before she deployed. She had been hospitalized after telling doctors she wanted to crash a car and injure herself, according to the report.

And they didn't know she had weaned herself off her prescribed anti-anxiety medication in the summer of 2011 to satisfy requirements to deploy. That was six months before she shot and killed herself while stationed alone in a guard tower on Dec. 21 at Forward Operating Base Salerno, according to the Army investigation. She was Cowlitz County's first casualty of war since Vietnam.

"It is my opinion that (Bragg) 'fell through the cracks' created by the lack of information sharing that had been repeatedly requested and denied," a brigade behavioral health officer stationed at Camp Salerno wrote to investigators in a report obtained by The Daily News through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

The report on Bragg's death offers insights into a difficult problem for the military: Suicides are rising to alarming levels even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Veterans' groups say the military needs to do more to help soldiers who are struggling with long deployments, the stress of being away from home and pre-existing psychological trauma.

And while the report is critical of the military's handling of Bragg's case, it also portrays a young soldier determined to serve. Bragg, 20, volunteered at battalion fundraising events, referred herself to Fort Knox counselors when necessary, and, once she deployed, contributed and fit in immediately with a new group of soldiers, according to various accounts cited in the Army report.

Bragg's father, Steve Bragg of Longview, has served as a spokesman for the family. He has seen the report and has chosen not to comment.

"The Army's mismanagement of Mikayla was so egregious this story needed to be told," said Rick Parrish, publisher of The Daily News. "I promised Steve Bragg we would deal with this story in a very forthright and sensitive manner, and I think we've done so. Mikayla is a hero to all of us."

Was death avoidable?

The 135-page report, known as a 15-6 investigation to determine the facts of the case, included written statements from Bragg's fellow soldiers and commanders in Afghanistan, mental-health counselors and Army officials at Fort Knox. All names except for Bragg's were blacked out in the report. Capt. Brett C. Shepard, an attorney with of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General Corps, signed the report.

The report does not say if anyone would face discipline in relation to Bragg's death. The investigators made three recommendations to the Army:

• Mental-health providers stateside should share more information about high-risk soldiers with mental-health providers in war zones. Camp Salerno's behavioral health officer said she had been unable to get mental-health records for Bragg and other formerly nondeployable soldiers because of privacy laws.

• Commanders should develop better procedures to ensure personnel data is not lost while transferring soldiers between units.

• No soldier, regardless of gender, should be stationed in a guard tower alone.

In the report, Army investigators said commanders at Fort Knox failed to properly track Bragg as a "high-risk" soldier (one who could potentially hurt herself or others) before she was cleared to deploy to Afghanistan. Her death may not have been prevented, but she may have been better able to cope if she continued counseling and other services while stationed overseas, according to the report.

"I found out after her death she had been seen (at Fort Knox) for issues like this. Of course the information was never provided to her commander (in Afghanistan). ... Real effective policy they have in place," a frustrated Army captain wrote in the report.

By all accounts, Bragg never indicated in Afghanistan that she was considering suicide, according to interviews with fellow soldiers. About a month before she died, she told a fellow soldier in an Internet chat that she had been sexually assaulted by an Afghan civilian contractor while on base, according to the report. Bragg did not report this incident to her superiors, according to the investigator.

One section of the report raises the possibility that Bragg may have informed Army doctors of sexual assaults she experienced prior to her enlistment. An unnamed investigating officer comments that "Given Spc. Bragg's past history of sexual assaults before joining the Army, this event may have been the trigger which ultimately led to her suicide," but he provided no additional elaboration.

Investigators ruled Bragg died "in the line of duty," which means the military is treating her death the same way as those killed by enemy fire. Her family is eligible for the same survivor benefits and she is afforded the same honors in death as other soldiers, military officials said.

Once news of Bragg's death broke in December, the community threw its support behind her family. Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered flags statewide to be flown at half-mast in January, and a private group raised money this summer to build a statue in Bragg's honor at her alma mater, Mark Morris High School.

A public memorial was held in Kelso, and she was buried at Tahoma National Ceremony in Kent.

'Eager to deploy'

Bragg joined the Army in 2008 after graduating from Mark Morris High School. She completed basic training at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., and arrived at Fort Knox as a member of Echo Company in May 2010. Over the next year, she was moved back and forth to the rear detachment, which is reserved for nondeployable soldiers, a half-dozen times because of medical and mental health problems, according to the report.

Army investigators said Bragg apparently attempted suicide while at Fort Knox by drinking a caustic substance in her barracks in October 2010. She spent nearly a month in the Lincoln Trail Behavioral Health Center at Fort Knox undergoing treatment. A week after she returned to duty in December, she was readmitted to the center because she had passed out eight times after refusing to eat for four days, according to the report.

At this point, Bragg's commanders began to pursue a Chapter 5-17 to remove her from the Army because of her struggles. In response, Bragg weaned herself off her prescribed Valium for anti-anxiety, continued to meet with counselors and obtained a waiver to deploy in the fall of 2011 — about a year after the suicide attempt, according to the report. Fort Knox behavioral officers and commanders said she was not a complicated problem who drained the unit's resources and that she was no longer considered a high-risk soldier.

"Spc. Bragg appeared eager and genuinely motivated to deploy," an Army captain wrote.

After receiving a U.S. Central Command waiver, she deployed to Afghanistan in September 2011 with a different company. A company typically has between 80 and 200 soldiers.

While in Afghanistan, Bragg showed no indications she was having problems, according to Army interviews with nearly two dozen of her fellow soldiers. All said she was a good soldier and exhibited no suicidal tendencies, and she had been promoted twice to specialist while in Afghanistan. She completed the Army's suicide prevention training in November 2011 — mandatory for all soldiers — and attended additional classes designed to help intervene in other soldiers' suicide attempts, according to the report.

According to the report, she even bought a plane ticket and planned to come home during her first leave of absence, scheduled for early 2012.

Bragg was a qualified sharpshooter and a motor transportation operator. Before she died, she was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and the War on Terrorism Service Medal.

"The unit seemed to have no problems with Spc. Bragg. Everyone seemed to enjoy being around Bragg. ... She fit right in quickly and became part of the family," a private first-class in Afghanistan wrote.

"She was funny, hyper, caring, thoughtful. She remembered that I liked Mountain Dew, so she brought some to (the) tower," another fellow soldier wrote.

A couple of her closer friends said she had mentioned in passing her stay in the treatment center at Fort Knox. Others questioned why military brass stateside allowed her to deploy, given her history, according to the report.

"I am now aware that Spc. Bragg may have tried to commit suicide ... while with Echo Company. If this is the case, I really don't understand why she was simply moved to another battalion," a first lieutenant in Afghanistan wrote.

A public affairs officer at Fort Knox referred a Daily News reporter to Fort Riley, the division headquarters, for comment. Maj. Deborah Crowley, Fort Riley's assistant chief of behavioral health, said soldiers usually sit out an entire 18-month deployment rotation if they are deemed unfit to go to war. Rarely are soldiers like Bragg allowed to join their company late once it already has been deployed, and their commanders in Afghanistan should be alerted if they need additional treatment and counseling, Crowley said in a written statement.

On guard alone

According to the report, the behavioral health officer for the Third Brigade First Infantry unit at Fort Knox, which included Bragg, failed in multiple attempts to obtain mental-health records from doctors at Fort Knox. The officer first requested records of all soldiers who had undergone mental-health counseling in November 2009, saying she wanted to ensure soldiers at risk continued to receive counseling and other care while on deployment, according to the report.

The officer said her requests were repeatedly denied, and doctors cited federal health privacy laws, according to the report.

The officer said she only learned of Bragg's mental-health history after her death, and she believes that additional treatment could have helped her cope better in Afghanistan, according to the report.

"It is always difficult to say if an event such as this could have been prevented, as hindsight is always 20/20. ... However, the information should have been provided regarding this soldier and coordination of care should have transpired between Fort Knox Behavioral Health and myself in order to insure continuity of care, and to insure that the soldier was well informed with how to access care in theater," the officer wrote.

The investigating officer also criticized Army commanders for allowing Bragg to occupy the guard tower alone. Normally, base commanders require two soldiers be assigned to tower duty and they don't allow females to be stationed alone in towers with males to avoid sexual assaults, according to the report. The report also states that Bragg only took two rounds of ammunition with her instead of 210 rounds, as required — something that should have been checked by commanders before she assumed duty.

A suicide every other day

As American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are wrapping up, suicides among active-duty soldiers are accelerating, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Defense.

Through August, the Army reported 131 active-duty soldiers committed suicide this year or are suspected to have committed suicide. Of those, 13 soldiers were deployed at the time they died, Army officials said. The Army has the largest presence in Afghanistan and is the only branch to regularly report suicide statistics.

At the current pace, 196 soldiers will have taken their own lives by the end of this year — about one every two days. That's an 18 percent increase from 2011, Army officials said. Army soldier suicides have risen every year since 2009.

"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army's vice chief of staff, told The Associated Press in August.

"That being said, I do believe suicide is preventable. To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills," added Austin, who is spearheading Army efforts to halt the surge in suicides.

On Sept. 27, the Army held a servicewide "stand down," where soldiers put aside regular duties to undergo suicide prevention training.

Nevertheless, veterans groups say the military needs to better encourage soldiers to seek help if they're suffering from depression or considering suicide. Too often, soldiers worry that seeking assistance is a sign of weakness that will hurt their careers, veterans' groups say.

"There's still a really strong stigma in the military not to ask people for help. Some people are really open to it, but overall, it's not promoted," said Belle Landau, executive director of the Portland-based Returning Veterans Project, a nonprofit that provides counseling and other services for returning veterans.

For this current generation of soldiers, the rates of post traumatic stress disorder are rising to 20 percent or 30 percent, Landau said. For women, traumatic incidents such as sexual assault are far too common and can trigger PTSD, she said.

"Trauma upon trauma doesn't make you more resilient. It can make you less resilient," she said.

For the veteran population, suicides are under-reported, but counselors are seeing preliminary evidence that rates are lowered for people who seek help and don't try to hide their suicidal thoughts, said Aimee Johnson, suicide prevention coordinator of mental health division of the Portland Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.

"We're hoping that our work and outreach is minimizing that stigma," she said.

For Bragg's fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, her death was difficult to understand because she was performing so well, according to the report.

"She was amazingly hilarious. She was always positive and happy. She was the best wingman, always adding onto jokes and laughing with everyone. Very dependable and a great soldier," a corporal who served with Bragg wrote after her death.

"It doesn't make any sense."


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