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Sgt. Cassidy's death brought changes to Knox wounded warrior unit

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By Joshua Coffman

ABOUT THIS STORY

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This report is part one in a series that looks at the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Knox since its opening one year ago. Part two in this series will appear in Monday’s issue of The News-Enterprise.

By JOSHUA COFFMAN

jcoffman@thenewsenterprise.com

FORT KNOX — Indiana National Guardsman Sgt. Gerald Cassidy talked to his wife Tuesday night, Sept. 18. It would be the last time she heard from him. Army records show he talked to his mom Wednesday morning. From then, his phone sat unused, voice mails unreturned.

Days later Cassidy would be found dead in his room by a soldier and commander.

Meanwhile, life went on at the Army’s warrior transition unit on post, a barracks where injured soldiers, including Cassidy, are assigned to heal. No questions were asked when Cassidy did not show up for formation on Friday, Sept. 21. No red flags appeared, even though he had not been seen in days.

Still suffering severe headaches from the summer before in Iraq when a vehicle in front of him hit a roadside bomb, Cassidy had been cleared for medical outprocessing and was all but set to begin receiving care near his home in Indianapolis. He had been given clearance to visit his family that weekend in September.

Something didn’t add up to Melissa Cassidy. She never went days without hearing from G.J., a father of two. Alarm bells rang urgently in her mind.

When she accessed the 31-year-old soldier’s phone and heard the voicemails piled up, she panicked. A call placed to a soldier friend of her husband, also in the unit, did little to calm her fears.

Hours later she called again. The soldier went to the unit’s quality control desk, asking permission from his chain of command to check if Cassidy had taken his bags and headed home. 

He and a commander went into Cassidy’s barracks.

Once inside the soldier’s room, they found Cassidy non-responsive, sitting in front of his laptop in a Guinness T-shirt and desert-camo shorts, his head tilted back. The laptop had not been used since it had been powered up Tuesday. Its screen saver read, “I will do whatever it takes to get back to my family.”

It became his mantra in Iraq. It remained his mantra at Fort Knox. But, a year returned from the war, he did not make it back.

The Army ruled it an accidental overdose, finding lethal levels of the anti-depressant Celexa and the powerful narcotic Methadone in his blood.

His family says the warrior transition unit was inadequate and blames the military for his death. They say, given the long list of powerful painkillers prescribed to him and the lack of attention  for days, that there were multiple opportunities for the soldier’s life to be saved.

A report prepared by a private pathologist hired by the family echoes those beliefs.  

Cassidy had been dead between 12 and 36 hours. No time of death was listed on the autopsy.

It’s uncertain exactly how long the soldier went without anyone seeing him. Afterward, a military criminal investigation indicated some soldiers saw Cassidy, but those occurrences could not be verified.

Cassidy’s family says the warrior unit changed him. The long hours alone and prescription drug use turned a man who once worked hard and enjoyed his family into another person, one who was withdrawn and lethargic.

“In our eyes, the Army murdered him,” said Kay McMullen, who lost her youngest biological child.

While Cassidy was in Iraq, McMullen anxiously awaited the ping of the bell on her computer's instant messenger announcing the latest word from her son, saying he was OK.

“He made it home and they killed him,” she said.

McMullen, with the help of Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, shed light on Cassidy’s death, leading to national media coverage. It resulted in the removal of Cassidy’s entire chain of command, including the unit’s commander.

And the Warrior Transition Unit, itself created to address numerous problems with soldier care and bureaucracy at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, marked the second time in a year in which the Army sought to better organize its soldier care process in the wake of tragedy.

The WTU formally established itself at Fort Knox one year ago today and the Army says the program now is  running strong, helping soldiers get back in the field or make a smooth transition into life as a disabled veteran.

But challenges remain for the year-old program.

THE ARMY’S CHANGES. The WTU today is stronger than the unit in which Cassidy served.

In all, $16 million has been spent on renovations for buildings to house the unit, fifth largest of the Army’s 35 WTUs. Construction is 80 percent complete. 

Features at the hospital and barracks include state-of-the-art treatment rooms, an electronic database for medical records, and a family assistance center offering Internet, a TV lounge, daycare, job assistance and a pool table.

Cleared to house 360 soldiers, currently 325 troops call the unit home.

Lt. Col. Gary Travis, WTU commander since January, said staff members are completely dedicated to the mission of helping soldiers heal.

“Every single one of us volunteered,” he said.

Challenges remain for the unit, Travis said, such as long-term staffing, construction and ensuring the unit can sustain its capacity of troops. 

But Cassidy’s death brought sweeping changes.

Soldier accountability has tightened. Every soldier is required to attend three formations daily.

“It’s all a part of good order and discipline,” Travis said.

Each WTU member is required to work or attend classes every weekday, teaching them about VA benefits, financial security and job skills. Travis said those classes have increased as the unit has evolved.

Those assigned to the unit often arrive after completing a 12- or 15-month deployment, as was the case with Cassidy.

“This is the first time the Army, after a war, that they’ve truly tried to heal a warrior before discharge,” said Col. Rhonda Earls, commander of the Army Medical Department at Fort Knox.

Travis said the unit has improved and he expects the quality of care to get even better in the future.

Cassidy suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, in addition to his headaches, and complained of construction on the roof above his room. He said the dropping of bundles of shingles sounded like mortars exploding.

Travis said all construction work is done in the daytime and soldiers no longer  are permitted to stay in their rooms during the day, instead working or attending classes. Soldiers also do not stay in the rooms alone, with each room containing two beds.

“That’s just basic soldiering,” Travis said, “accounting for our folks.”

ARMY OVERDOSES. Cassidy was not the only soldier to die accidentally in a WTU. In February the Army Medical Command acknowledged 11 deaths from non-natural causes. Citing medical privacy regulations, the military declined to release the dates or locations of the deaths.

Four were from suicide; three, including Cassidy’s at the time, were under investigation; three were from accidental overdose; and one was from a car crash.

In February, Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army’s surgeon general who took command during the cleanup at Walter Reed, addressed the rise in accidental overdoses in the Army. Three months before the Centers for Disease Control named accidental overdoses, behind car crashes, as the nation’s second leading cause of unintentional death.

Schoomaker proposed a safety net for soldiers with emotional or psychological problems and insisted the military will address the challenge.

“This isn’t restricted to the military alone. We all saw the unfortunate death of one of our leading actors recently,” he said, as quoted by the Associated Press, referring to the overdose of actor Heath Ledger.

Bayh took issue with the comments of Schoomaker, who personally visited Cassidy’s mother in Indiana after the soldier’s death.

“I think that’s inappropriate,” Bayh said in a Feb. 15 teleconference with journalists, noting that Ledger’s death came from recreational use while, in Cassidy’s case, the narcotics were prescribed.

However, some soldiers accused Cassidy of drinking heavily and taking pills in large doses. 

An Army specialist, whose name was redacted in a released copy of the report, told investigators Cassidy “looked messed up from either pills or beer” every time he saw him. The soldier said he knew of Cassidy taking two pills of Methadone consecutively until 12 of the 16 pills prescribed to him — less than a week before he died — were gone. Army records show the psychologist who prescribed him the drug, Dr. William Kearney, warned Cassidy of mixing the pills with alcohol and of the build-up the drug causes in a person’s bloodstream.

No alcohol was found in Cassidy’s system but, depending on how long he had been dead, the time frame for it to show up could have passed.

McMullen, Cassidy’s mother, said her son did not have a substance abuse problem prior to arriving at Fort Knox. She and Bayh often use the phrase “self medicating” to describe his treatment in the WTU.

Since his death, WTU soldiers’ squad leaders, troops who interact with the patients daily, have been instructed on dealing with prescription medicines and the medical department is taking an “in depth look” at soldiers taking multiple medications, Earls said.

Everybody views Cassidy’s death as a tragedy, no matter where the blame is shouldered. But those most affected hope good can come out of tragedy.

“We’re grateful that no one else will suffer the same results,” McMullen said. “There has to be change or it’s totally wasted.”

Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.