There's a formidable group of warriors out there — and they're fighting America's military. Spouses of troops who have come back from the war with serious mental health problems have made it their mission to force the military to give the troops the help they need.
In the process, they've transformed themselves from "the silent ranks," as the military traditionally calls wives, into vocal and effective activists.
Tammie LeCompte is among them. When her husband, Army Spc. Ryan LeCompte, came back to Fort Carson, Colo., after two tours in Iraq, he was a different man — angry, withdrawn and isolated. In 2007, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he eventually became so depressed and unable to function that doctors feared he might die.
So when Tammie LeCompte saw that the Army was not giving her husband intensive treatment — and, worse, his commanders were punishing him for not doing his job — she launched a campaign against the Army that eventually caught the ear of Congress. Today, doctors say that Tammie LeCompte's battle may have saved her husband's life.
Carissa Picard, founder of a national group called Military Spouses for Change, has never met Tammie LeCompte, but she recently launched a Web site specifically to teach spouses how to pressure the military to give proper care to returning troops with health problems. Picard says Tammie's own battle reflects how wives across the country have transformed themselves into advocates in order to save their own husbands.
"When I feel like the well-being of my husband or my family is at stake, that taps into a very fundamental place for women," says Picard, who is married to an Army helicopter pilot. "That's like a Mama Bear place. We're fighting to protect the people that we love."
Lecompte's Return from Iraq
When Ryan LeCompte came back from Iraq in January 2006, he started suffering from the classic symptoms that afflict large numbers of troops who've fought in wars. Back in Iraq, his officers hailed him as "one of the platoon's best soldiers," who always "worked tirelessly, without complaint."
But at home, he became a hermit. He avoided his family most of the time. When he didn't, he'd fly into a rage.
Tammie says she would hear cries in the middle of the night, and she'd find him curled in a ball on the floor. During the day, there'd be a loud noise, and he'd drop to the ground like someone was shooting.
But at least Ryan realized he needed help. His Army records prove it.
Tammie drew on the filing skills she learned as a clerk in the military's insurance program, and she started putting just about every document that the Army has ever written about her husband in clear, plastic sleeves in two huge black binders.
These records show that LeCompte started going to the mental health center soon after he got back from Iraq. The doctors sent him to classes on anger management and alcohol abuse, and group therapy, and they prescribed various drugs — but he didn't get intensive treatment.
And LeCompte kept getting worse. He'd show up late for formation. He seemed disoriented. He couldn't remember orders. So, according to Army records, his officers made him scrub the toilets and do other menial chores — to punish him.
Tammie says LeCompte took it out at home, shouting at her and sometimes violently shoving her. She says she started thinking about leaving him.
Tammie LeCompte was desperate. She went to Ryan's officers, and she begged them to support him instead of treating him as if he were malingering. They said he was an alcoholic and faking his symptoms. Tammie went to the inspector general at Fort Carson and asked him to investigate why Ryan wasn't getting proper treatment.
He dismissed her allegations and said the Army was acting appropriately.
So Tammie started sending letter after letter to just about anybody she could think of, including members of Congress and veterans advocates like Andrew Pogany, who helps soldiers with serious mental health problems get help dealing with the Army.
She pleaded with them to get Ryan better treatment. And finally, those vets and senators wrote Fort Carson, asking what was going on.
Michele Cassida, one of the key staff members at Fort Carson who handled the calls and letters from Congress, said Ryan is "very lucky" to have his wife as an advocate.
"I don't know if a lot of people would go through what she's been through," Cassida says.
Cassida pored over LeCompte's records, and she interviewed his officers and fellow soldiers.
"Ryan Lecompte is a very sick solder — very, very sick — and needs help," Cassida says. "I have seen him literally deteriorate in front of my eyes."
By the summer of 2007, LeCompte had stopped talking or walking. He wouldn't eat on his own, so Tammie had to spoon-feed him.
But Cassida says the more Tammie begged for help, the more his officers retaliated.
Cassida says she can understand that Ryan and Tammie might have rubbed some people the wrong way. People with PTSD can be infuriating. Tammie can be blunt and abrasive. But Cassida says that's no reason to mistreat them.
For instance, Ryan's officers ordered him to line up in formation every day, even though he was almost a vegetable. So Tammie would push him to formation in a wheelchair at 5:30 every morning. The officers cited LeCompte for conduct "unbecoming of a soldier," they demoted him and cut his pay, and then they started the process of kicking him out of the Army for "patterns of misconduct."
"I don't understand how they can victimize a family like they have done," Cassida says. "This is vindictiveness. This is evilness. This is not what the Army is about."
Commanders who were involved in LeCompte's case declined comment or didn't return phone calls from NPR. A spokeswoman at Fort Carson said she couldn't reach any one else qualified to talk about the case.
But commanders at Fort Carson sent letters to Congress stating, "LeCompte was given access to all appropriate medical and psychological treatment" and "was treated appropriately by his chain of command."
'Too Many Worries'
By late last year, Tammie seemed on the verge of a breakdown. She says she was borrowing money from relatives and friends. She looked and sounded exhausted, as she juggled raising their children and fighting the Army — and serving as a full-time nurse for Ryan. "I've got too many worries," she said at the time, fighting back tears. "I'm worried about my husband. I'm worried about my kids. And there's not 10 of me. I'm only one person."
But suddenly, just before Christmas last year, Tammie's two-year battle paid off. The congressional staff members and veterans groups who had been rallying around her persuaded Fort Carson to send Ryan to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. Walter Reed has suffered its own share of scandal, but medical specialists generally agree that its doctors are among the best in the military.
Once he arrived there, Ryan LeCompte spent most of his time slumped on his bed, like a frail 90-year-old in a nursing home.
The team of psychiatrists on Ryan's case had already made their diagnosis: He was so depressed that his body was shutting down. The most widely used psychiatric manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association, calls it "major depressive disorder ... with catatonic features."
Officials at the Pentagon refused to let Ryan's doctors talk with NPR. But sources who worked with them say the doctors believe that Ryan might have died, if Tammie's advocates hadn't persuaded commanders at Fort Carson to send him to Walter Reed.
Two of her most influential advocates are seasoned staff members on Capitol Hill — James Pitchford, who focuses on veterans' issues for Sen. Christoper Bond (R-MO), and Krista Lamoreaux, who works for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD). Commanders at Fort Carson sent Ryan to Walter Reed only after the aides hinted that the senators might make trouble for the Army.
Pitchford says none of this would have happened without Tammie LeCompte. He says she reminds him of Erin Brockovich — the woman Julia Roberts played in the hit movie of the same name, after she exposed a corporation that was poisoning people.
Tammie is "a pit bull," Pitchford says. "She is a fighter." He says he hopes Julia Roberts or another famous actress will make "The LeCompte Story."
Doctors at Walter Reed have sent Ryan LeCompte back home to South Dakota. He's getting therapy and medical care at a nearby VA hospital.
Ryan and Tammie's battle isn't over, because Army officials still haven't announced whether they're going to kick Ryan out of the service for misconduct, as they had planned, or will retire him with honor and all his benefits, as members of Congress are insisting.
But Ryan's walking again, with a cane. He's talking a little. He feeds himself. And sometimes, Tammie says, he even smiles.