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Army says Iraq vet from Ill. who went AWOL for mental therapy won't be court-martialed

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Spc. Eugene Cherry said he sought counseling from the Army but received only one therapy session.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- An Iraq war veteran from Chicago will not be court-martialed for leaving his post without permission for 15 months to undergo treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, the Army said.

Instead of facing a bad conduct discharge -- a felony punishable by up to a year in military prison -- Spc. Eugene Cherry admitted he was absent without leave and was granted a general discharge, rather than an honorable discharge, the Army said Friday.

"It really wasn't about proving I went AWOL -- that's a given," Cherry, who was to be tried by court-martial Monday, said in a telephone interview from Fort Drum in northern New York.

Cherry, 24, encountered horrific battle experiences during 13 months as a combat medic in Iraq. Five months after his return in June 2005, he went home to Chicago to find mental health treatment after the Army failed to provide him with adequate help.

When he came back to Fort Drum in March to resolve his Army status, Cherry was restricted to his post and later told he would be court-martialed.

"He was receiving medical care" at Fort Drum, Army spokesman Ben Abel said. "He may not have felt that it was adequate ... but it's not an excuse for leaving a unit for that length of time."

In Chicago, Cherry was treated by Dr. Hannah Frisch, a clinical psychologist who diagnosed him with PTSD and major depression. In a report prepared for his commanders, she said he needed intensive, individualized psychotherapy, not just drugs, to treat his condition.

Prescribed medication

During his Iraq tour with the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Cherry regularly saw the burned and charred bodies of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens and developed an obsessive fear of being kidnapped and beheaded, according to Frisch's report.

Cherry saw a military psychologist and was prescribed anti-depression medication. Back at Fort Drum, he said he sought counseling but experienced only postponements and rescheduling. On returning there in March, he said he was given one therapy session and placed again on a regimen of drugs.

The post's mental health clinic has 11 psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to serve nearly 17,000 soldiers and their families.

While the military has decided not to court-martial Cherry, an Army judge has ruled that trying 1st Lt. Ehren Watada again for his refusal to deploy to Iraq won't violate his constitutional right not to be prosecuted twice for the same crime.

Watada has been lionized by anti-war activists for his contention that the war is illegal. He is charged with missing his unit's deployment in June 2006 and with conduct unbecoming an officer for comments he made about President Bush and the Iraq war. If convicted, he could be sentenced to six years in prison and be dishonorably discharged.

Watada's first trial ended in a mistrial, and Friday the military judge, Lt. Col. John Head, ruled at Fort Lewis, Wash., that a new trial would not violate his protection against double jeopardy. Watada's lawyers immediately filed notice they will appeal to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.


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