Excerpt: ‘The War Comes Home’

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Aaron Glantz’s The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans (University of California Press). Tragically, the death described here occurred nearly six months after the Walter Reed Scandal broke.

Gerald J. “G. J.” Cassidy was drawn to the military from a very young age. As the youngest of six children growing up in suburban Indianapolis in the early 1980s, he enjoyed playing Army around the family home. “He and his cousin Ryan would roam around, finding ‘bunkers’ and attacking here and there,” said his uncle, Mike Cassidy. “It was always the USA versus the Soviet Union, or G. I. Joe versus Cobra.”

As a teenager, G. J. became more interested in battle strategy. He painstakingly painted tiny toy soldiers in historically accurate uniforms and positioned them atop the family’s ping-pong table, reenacting battles with his friends. “They spent hours, month after month, year after year, painting figures of the different wars,” his mother, Kay McMullen told me. “His favorite was the Civil War. They would refight the Civil War over and over again. He always had an affinity for strategy and always wanted to have something to do with the military.”

G. J. spent his summers at Culver Military Academy in northern Indiana, where he became a member of the Black Horse Troop, an elite equestrian detail. By age 17, he had achieved the title of adjutant commander, and he convinced his mother to sign a waiver allowing him to join the U.S. Army Reserve. He went through basic training between his junior and senior year of high school. Over the next 14 years, as G. J. graduated from the University of Alabama, married, and fathered two children, the Army remained an important part of his life.

After finishing his commitment to the Army Reserve, he switched to the Indiana National Guard and served in Bosnia in 2004 and also in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “He loved being in Bosnia, even though he missed his wife and children, because he felt like he was really doing something,” his mother remembered. “The Serbs were trying to annihilate the Muslims and the Muslims would come up to him and thank him. They wanted to hug the soldiers because they knew that without the American soldiers they would face being killed. He felt like he served a real purpose and he loved it.”

Iraq Tour

In March 2006, G. J. volunteered for a tour in Iraq — motivated to serve and help others the same way he had done in Bosnia and Louisiana. Because the Indiana National Guard wasn’t scheduled to be sent until 2007, he was reassigned to the Minnesota Guard before being deployed overseas.

In Iraq, he was assigned to Camp Scania, a truck stop along the main supply route from Baghdad to Kuwait. American convoys heading north to Baghdad stop at Scania, where they refuel and use the PX and head north. According to the well-regarded military affairs website GlobalSecurity.org, the camp is isolated, far from any Iraqi towns and cities: “It has all the ambiance of a land fill Scania is a walled community, a lot like a prison in reverse. There is a high wall topped with razor wire and guard towers. The walls are to keep the bad guys out and the good guys protected. One end of the base is the fuel point; the other is living, and logistics.”

As a sergeant, G. J. regularly commanded small groups of soldiers who went outside the base to hunt down and kill the fighters who mortared the base and planted roadside bombs. It was grueling work, much more dangerous than his service in Bosnia.

“On June 28, 2006, he was in a convoy and there was a Humvee ahead of them and his gunner said ‘Sir, I’m almost sure there is a roadside bomb over there,’” his mother Kay told me. “And my son, being in charge of those eight men, turned to look at it and it exploded. The Hummer ahead of them took the full brunt and there were men killed
in that.” The blast sent G. J. flying and knocked him unconscious. When he woke up, his family said he was not given medical attention, but kept on in his duties — conducting raids, escorting convoys, and guarding the perimeter of Camp Scania.

When he returned to the United States in April 2007, G. J. was finally given a medical evaluation. Doctors at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, diagnosed the sergeant with post-traumatic stress disorder, noting he had sustained a concussion and suffered from memory loss, severe migraines, and permanent partial hearing loss.

A Wounded Warrior’s Death

Following procedures developed after the scandal at Walter Reed, the doctors put a “medical hold” on G. J.’s discharge from active duty and sent him to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was assigned to one of the Army’s newly created Wounded Warrior Transition Units, where injured soldiers are each supposed to be assigned a doctor, a nurse care manager, and a squad leader to manage treatment.

The new unit didn’t work well for G. J. On September 21, 2007, five months after arriving home from Iraq, Sgt. G. J. Cassidy was found dead in his room at Fort Knox.

“This is something that is serious to Fort Knox and to the Army,” base spokeswoman Connie Shaffery told the Associated Press after G. J.’s family complained to the media. “Every aspect of his death is being investigated,” she added.

But G. J.’s family wasn’t satisfied with the Army’s response. “He died from lack of care,” his mother told me tearfully. “He came back from Iraq, and the Army killed him.” According to his family, the medical ward at Fort Knox was so understaffed that G. J. was lucky to have one doctor appointment and one psychiatrist appointment a month. “The young men, including him sometimes, would go and sit in chairs all day outside their doctor’s office, waiting for a chance that someone wouldn’t show up for an appointment, or if he could fit them in for a few minutes between appointments,” Kay said.

Most of the time, Kay said, her son was left alone in his third-floor room, where he sat unattended playing games on his X-Box and laptop computer. One time, he passed out in his room by himself and woke up three or four hours later, lying in a pool of blood that he said had come from his mouth or nose. “He blacked out and fell forward and something in his head started bleeding. He doesn’t know what, he was unconscious,” Kay told me. “Another time, he was climbing the steps to his third-floor dormitory and he blacked out and hit his head against the wall and had abrasions all over his forehead. They knew that and they still let him stay in this third-floor room by himself with no buddy system, no hospitalization, no nothing.”

On Wednesday, September 19, 2007, Kay had her final conversation with her son. G. J. complained of flashbacks brought on by maintenance work being done on his building at Fort Knox. The base’s staff was replacing the shingles on the roof above his dorm room, and every time a new shingle went up or an old one was ripped off he felt like a bomb had exploded. He told his mom he hadn’t slept in days. Then, two days passed and neither Kay nor G. J.’s wife Melissa heard a word from him. The silence was eerie. G. J was bored at Fort Knox and called them three or four times a day. He almost always answered his phone and told them many times he couldn’t wait for his medical hold to end so that he could get back to Indiana, where he planned to help raise his children and reenter the civilian workforce as a high-school teacher.

G. J.’s family knew something was wrong. At 8:00 a.m. on Friday, September 21, 2007, they got on the phone and called Fort Knox, trying to reach anyone who might be willing to go up to G. J.’s third-floor room to check and see if he was alright. At 7:00 p.m. on September 21, a soldier entered Sgt. Gerald Cassidy’s room and found him sitting in a chair dead.

‘Criminal Negligence’

“They let a young man who had passed out in his room in a pool of blood, who had passed out and hit a wall — they let a young man like that live in a dormitory room all by himself, and when he didn’t show up for [daily] roll call nobody went up to check on him for at least two and a half days,” G. J.’s mother raged. “It’s criminal negligence.”

Military officials declined to comment on specifics of G. J.’s death until a full investigation is completed, but an independent autopsy performed at the request of his family found that G. J. had been dead for hours before being found and may have been unconscious for days. On Monday, October 1, 2007, G. J. Cassidy received a full military funeral, which was attended by many of his state’s most prominent officials. The commander of the Indiana National Guard, Gen. R. Martine Umbarger, gave the eulogy.

“Sgt. Cassidy represents citizen-soldiers everywhere who sacrifice family and career to serve their state and nation,” the general said. “What a great American. What a fine young man. How blessed we are as a nation and as a state to have soldiers like Sgt. Cassidy who are willing to volunteer and to go in harm’s way serving their country.” Indiana governor Mitch Daniels also spoke at the funeral, presenting G. J.’s widow Melissa with a posthumous Purple Heart. “A free nation cannot survive, freedom cannot survive without people like Sgt. Cassidy,” he said.

Three weeks after his death, G. J.’s family got support from another source. One of Indiana’s U.S. senators, Evan Bayh, wrote to Secretary of the Army Preston Geren (a former Democratic congressman from Texas who had been appointed to the position after his predecessor resigned because of the Walter Reed scandal). In his letter, Senator Bayh noted the September 2007 Government Accountability Office report, which demonstrated staffing shortfalls as high as 50% at the Army’s Wounded Warrior Transition Units. The senator voiced concern that the Army was insufficiently caring for soldiers who, like Sgt. Cassidy, suffered physical brain damage while serving in Iraq.

“The GAO report also found that the Army is not properly screening and treating soldiers with TBI [traumatic brain injury], due in part to staffing shortfalls,” the senator wrote. “I am aware that the Army has established policies to provide training on TBI to all of its nurse case managers and psychiatric nurses, among others. Yet as of September 13, 2007, only six of the Army’s 32 Warrior Transition Units had completed TBI training for all staff.

“I ask that you share with me the Army’s decision-making process behind sending SGT Cassidy to Fort Knox for treatment,” Bayh continued. “Was this an appropriate facility? Also, what steps are being taken by the Army to determine the circumstances surrounding his tragic death? What is the Army doing to improve its Warrior Transition Unit program, especially for those who have suffered brain injuries? How often are wounded soldiers put into situations similar to that of SGT Cassidy? How might the current inadequacies of the Warrior Transition Unit program have contributed to his death? How might a properly functioning program have prevented it?”

Like Senator Bayh, G. J. Cassidy’s family is waiting for answers.

Aaron Glantz, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, has reported from both Iraq and Vietnam. He is author of The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans.