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'The doctors try to turn it around like you're crazy'

Oct. 7, 2013 - 08:59AM   |  
Airman 1st Class Trent Smith
Airman 1st Class Trent Smith (Courtesy photo)
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Eight months after accusing a co-worker of sexual assault, Airman 1st Class Trent Smith was diagnosed with a personality disorder and sent before a medical discharge board.

Eight months after accusing a co-worker of sexual assault, Airman 1st Class Trent Smith was diagnosed with a personality disorder and sent before a medical discharge board.

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Eight months after accusing a co-worker of sexual assault, Airman 1st Class Trent Smith was diagnosed with a personality disorder and sent before a medical discharge board.

The Air Force psychologist he had gone to for help dealing with anxiety and depression in the aftermath of the alleged assault described Smith in medical records as “odd, peculiar, paranoid and extremely guarded.”

“Recommend immediate processing of separation from the military,” the psychologist concluded in May after five months of treatment.

Smith, a security forces member, said he believes he is being forced out of the Air Force for reporting the alleged assault and for his sexual orientation. He is bisexual.

Unable to carry a weapon, Smith can’t perform security forces duties, according to a memo from his commander, who recommended medical discharge. Smith has not been in the Air Force long enough to retrain to another career field.

Smith blames his psychological problems on the alleged assault. He intends to fight the discharge, now underway. He said the psychologist who treated him exaggerated an incident in which he made a comment about killing himself. Another psychologist disputed the personality disorder diagnosis. And the chaplain Smith currently works for said Smith “has what it takes to be a fine airman.”

“You’re cast down,” Smith said. “The doctors try to turn it around like you’re crazy. I want people to know this is how the military treats its people.”

Veterans groups, including Vietnam Veterans of America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have said the military unfairly uses personality disorders to discharge service members. Some say the diagnoses have been inappropriately used to discharge victims of sexual assault.

Personality and adjustment disorders are considered to have existed before troops joined the military, making them ineligible for disability compensation and mental health treatment.

The diagnosis appears on veterans’ discharge papers, making it harder to find employment.

Protect Our Defenders policy director Miranda Petersen said the diagnoses are also “very damaging and very hard to change. It undermines their credibility. It really becomes a barrier most survivors can’t get over on their own,” Petersen said.

In March, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., introduced a bill that would require the review of discharges for personality and adjustment disorders.

Barred from doing job

Smith was 19 when he arrived at his first duty station at Vogelweh Air Base, Germany, in April 2012 as a security forces member.

He said a staff sergeant sexually assaulted him two months later. Smith made a restricted report to the base’s sexual assault response coordinator, which allowed him to get help dealing with the trauma without alerting the chain of command. In August the same year, he made an unrestricted report, which launched an investigation.

The staff sergeant was recommended for nonjudicial punishment for “having an unprofessional relationship,” according to a December memo from the 86th Airlift Wing. “Based upon my review of the case, I do not believe a sexual assault occurred and that the sexual acts … were consensual in nature,” the memo states.

The memo describes the staff sergeant as having “above average” duty performance but does not say how the decision was reached. The name of the sender is redacted from the memo obtained by Air Force Times.

In September 2012, six months after arriving at the base, Smith was barred from deploying or carrying a weapon, which left him unable to do his job. Smith said the restriction followed the investigation and a no-contact order between him and his alleged assailant.

Later that same month, Smith made a joke about killing himself after his shop at Vogelweh announced new shift hours, according to a medical record report from the 86th Medical Operations Squadron in Ramstein, Germany.

Smith said he spoke in jest. At least one of his co-workers was concerned enough to report the comment up the chain of command. When the command couldn’t reach Smith right away, his dorm room and computer were searched, which revealed Google searches for suicide hotlines and an article about overdosing on Nyquil, the medical record said.

Smith told his mental health provider at Ramstein he did not intend to harm himself. The incident seemed to raise no serious red flags for the provider, who wrote in Smith’s record that the airman first class had some symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as mild irritability, guilt and trouble concentrating but “no evidence of delusions … or bizarre behaviors.”

Smith “is not deemed an imminent threat to self or others,” the provider stated.

In November, Smith received a humanitarian transfer to Travis Air Force Base, Calif. “This removes him from the assailant and the situation that has caused him so much trouble,” the provider concluded in an October visit. “There is every possibility he will do much better once he has left Ramstein.”

More trouble, more transfers

At Travis, the weapon and deployment ban was lifted, Smith said, but reinstated weeks later when Smith sought mental health treatment there.

Smith said he was harassed by fellow security forces members because he couldn’t carry a weapon and because of his sexual orientation. When he was moved to another area on base, he said he was bullied for being a “snitch.”

He was moved again, this time to a non-security forces job at the base chapel. Smith told his psychologist he no longer wanted to be in security forces, a move she initially supported. But his request to retrain was denied because Smith did not have at least 35 months in service, a requirement for retraining.

At a therapy session in April, Smith said his provider gave him the results of her psychological testing: schizotypal personality disorder. Since he could not retrain or work in security forces, discharge was the only option, the provider wrote in the narrative.

The provider described Smith as “extremely guarded and difficult to work with interpersonally” and at times uncooperative in group therapy, refusing to contribute to discussions. Smith had also made multiple vague suicidal and homicidal ideations, including the incident at Volgelweh, she wrote.

The provider wrote that Smith at Vogelwehhad “reportedly pointed the gun to his head and said, ‘well, why don’t I just blow my head off.’ ”

Three days after the discharge recommendation, the Traviscommander ordered Smith to have no contact with the psychologist.

Both Smith and his former first sergeant submitted statements that contradicted the psychologist’s accounting of the Vogelweh incident, and Smith requested an impartial review of the provider’s summary.

The July review confirmed there was no evidence Smith had ever put a gun to his head. It also took issue with the diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder but still concluded Smith was unfit for service.

“His pattern of behavior suggests some level of problematic coping,” according to the review. “In my opinion ... [it is] sufficient to support the diagnosis of personality disorder not otherwise specified.”

A May letter written by the wing chaplain Smith now works for, Col. Robert Cannon, offered another side to the now-20-year-old airman, describing him as focused, dedicated and professional. Since coming on board at the chapel, Smith had begun, of his own initiative, biweekly “resiliency luncheons” for his co-workers.

“ He embodies the Air Force’s core values,” the letter stated. “His personal character and creative enthusiasm will serve the Air Force well for years to come.”

For now, Smith is awaiting the next step in the medical discharge process, an informal physical evaluation board. If the discharge is approved at the informal level, Smith said he will appeal to the formal board, which would involve a hearing.

He continues to work at the chapel. “Given everything I have endured, I still desire to stay in the Air Force,” he said. ■

Rick Maze contributed.

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