STRANGER AT HOME is a documentary film, currently in production, about a Navy Psychologist’s mission to hold Military Medicine accountable for solutions to the mental health epidemic decimating our warrior class.
Active duty military, veterans and their families are facing a mental health crisis of catastrophic proportion. In this day and age of advanced knowledge and unlimited resources, it is unfathomable that mental illness is still considered a weakness or a defect of character. Yet, this is the pervasive mindset of military culture with respect to the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure of War Stress Injuries. The consequences of these archaic and damaging beliefs are staggering: 24 suicides to every one battlefield death since 1999, rampant homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration and broken homes. These are all symptoms of untreated War Stress Injuries, which beg the questions: Why are we failing our bravest men and women who suffer needlessly? What is being done and what more can we do about it? Why have we let this preventable crisis happen?
STRANGER AT HOME explores these questions through a former Navy Psychologist’s tumultuous, personal account of his transformation from decorated career Officer, to reluctant whistle blower, to veteran with a relentless mission: to have Military Medicine become our nation’s leader in mental health reform – not just for the benefit of our warrior class, but for every American.
Mark Russell grew up in a military family. His father was a career Marine and combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam. His uncles fought in the Pacific during WWII. Two of his brothers served in the Air Force in the Persian Gulf War. One of his sons was a Marine deployed to Afghanistan. His other son is a Navy Corpsman also deployed to Afghanistan, and his daughter has deployed with the Navy.
Russell himself enlisted in the Marine Corps as a young man and served for ten years before going back to school, getting his PhD in Clinical Psychology and joining the Navy. His doctoral dissertation on combat PTSD led to interviewing hundreds of veterans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam, and early identification of the military’s wanton neglect of its well-documented ‘psychiatric lessons of war’ resulting in a cycle of self-inflicted, mental health crises since WWI. With over 26 years of military service, he is a highly decorated Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom veteran. (See series of articles in USA Today)
Ordered to gather data and make recommendations for improvement at the onset of the Iraq invasion, Russell surveyed colleagues about their capacity to treat PTSD, finding 90% had received no training in any of the top therapies recommended by the VA and DoD. He organized eight regional joint PTSD trainings with the VA for over 250 mental health providers, saving the DoD over a million dollars and repeatedly communicated these findings to Military Medicine. His numerous memoranda and point papers identified corrective actions required to fix ominous deficiencies in mental health staffing, training, research, organization, assessment, treatment, reintegration, family support and institutionalized stigma.
Russell was repeatedly decorated by the Navy and the DoD for his work, receiving the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal (with 3 Oak Leaf clusters), Navy Achievement Medal (with 2 Oak Leaf clusters) and the Meritorious Service Medal awarded by President George W. Bush “fordistinguishing himself as an exceptional leader, innovator, and clinician” and his “far reaching impact through his tireless efforts to address combat-related psychological trauma.”
Tragically, all of his efforts to forewarn and help the military avoid an impending self-inflicted debacle were met with no more than lip service. In essence, the Military was ignoring its own well-documented ‘lessons learned’; lessons diligently reported by every war generation since the First World War.
After three frustrating years of going through proper military channels and having his warnings and practical remedies actively ignored by the Military’s highest echelon, Commander Russell and his wife, Mika, made the agonizing decision to speak out publicly about the military’s breach of duty.
In 2006 he filed a complaint with the Department of Defense’s Inspector General alleging “gross mismanagement of military medicine’s top leaders, resulting in significant public health and safety concerns for hundreds of thousands of returning veterans and their families denied access to quality mental healthcare.”
This act of courage would ultimately end his military career and put the wellbeing of his family at great risk. The result was a pattern of retaliation including an end to his promotion tract, gag orders and threats from superiors: “the only way Russell leaves this base is either in handcuffs or in a box.”
Finally in 2006, Russell was rushed to the ER with what was diagnosed as stress related paralysis. It was then that his wife insisted he leave the Military.
In spite of this painful and unceremonious ending to a long and devoted career, Dr. Russell remains utterly respectful of the military culture in which he has spent most of his life. As a child moving from base to base, as an enlisted Marine, as a commissioned Navy Officer, and now as a veteran, he has never stopped valuing those who honorably serve.
Today, Dr. Russell remains steadfast in his work to fight for the highest standard of mental healthcare for all military personnel – both active duty and veteran. He advocates for a mandatory reentry and treatment program for military personnel and their families leaving the service, the creation of a Behavioral Health Lessons Learned Center, adopting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward mental health stigma and disparity similar to policies regarding discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as instituting organizational reforms by establishing a Behavioral Health Corps on par with the existing Medical, Dental, Nursing, Legal, and Veterinary Corps, with accountable leadership.
He is currently a professor at Antioch University in Seattle and founding Director of the Institute of War Stress Injuries, Recovery, and Social Justice. He continues to proactively seek system-wide change in policy and practice through whatever means necessary, including congressional action and civil litigation with the overarching goal of eradicating mental health stigma and disparity in society as a whole.
Our intent is that STRANGER AT HOME reaches into the audience’s heart and compassionately moves every one of us to a measure of personal responsibility for this tragedy. We aim to raise the national conversation to a new level; to involve corporations, the government/military and non-profit service organizations in a discussion about real solutions for these veterans and their families.
With your participation and support we will fulfill that intention.