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A Times Editorial

Treating combat injuries that leave no visible scars

The case of Marine Capt. Scott Sciple, accused of DUI manslaughter in the death of Pedro Rivera, is a tragic example of how the Marine Corps ignores service-induced mental disabilities within its ranks. Sciple suffered severe physical and psychological wounds from his four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and while his physical problems were treated, his mental incapacitation went unaddressed. These conclusions come from the Marine Corps itself, in a report detailing how the Corps failed Sciple, and, by extension, contributed to the terrible accident that left a man dead in Tampa last year. The report makes some key recommendations that could help fellow Marines suffering in silence.

To the Marine Corps' credit, it has made public the scathing findings of the 860-page report ordered by Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command. The report denounces the practice of leaving it to afflicted Marines to be forthright about the extent of their psychological injuries even as the culture of the Marine Corps stigmatizes those who admit to suffering with mental issues.

Sciple's physical wounds earned him three Purple Hearts and the nickname "the Shrapnel Magnet." From June 2009 to April 2010 he was prescribed 114 medications, including the narcotic painkillers oxycodone and morphine. But Sciple's strange behavior went largely undiagnosed and untreated. He suffered from memory loss and blackouts, including lapses in how he ended up places. Even so, the Marine Corps imposed no limits on his duty status.

The report concludes that Sciple was "incapable of making fully informed cognitive decisions" and was likely suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury as well as the combined effects of his multiple medications, sometimes mixed with alcohol. "Had Capt. Sciple been referred and treated in a timely manner," the report said, "it would have broken the chain of events leading to his accident."

Whether that affects Sciple's guilt on charges of DUI manslaughter will be determined at trial. But Sciple's case and the focus it has brought to psychological combat-related injuries will help other Marines. Waldhauser has ordered screening and support for all "at risk" Marines under his command, particularly those exposed to past traumatic experiences who are about to be deployed.

The report also was forwarded to Marine Corps leadership and naval medical experts and administrators for review of current screening, diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of PTSD and other mental injuries. If the Marine Corps' higher-ups don't just stick the report in a drawer, some good can come from this tragedy.

Treating combat injuries that leave no visible scars 09/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 6:25pm]
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