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Jeff Hanks, AWOL Soldier, Returns On Veterans Day

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — AWOL soldier Jeff Hanks said he walked away from the Army in the middle of a deployment to Afghanistan because his problems with anxiety and stress from combat have been ignored. On Veterans Day, he returned to face the consequences.

The 30-year-old Army infantryman said he has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder since his 2008 tour in Iraq. He tried to seek treatment at Fort Campbell, Ky., last month during his mid-tour leave from Afghanistan. He said when his commanders failed to help and told him he would have to immediately go back, he instead went home to North Carolina.

The specialist could face less-than-honorable discharge or jail after turning himself in Thursday at Fort Campbell.

"All I wanted was to be treated. Going AWOL is not what I wanted to do," Hanks told reporters outside the gates of the Army post. He choked up as he talked about how his actions might affect his daughters, ages 5 and 3. He said the older daughter pulled him aside one day and said: "You're not as nice as you used to be."

As for turning himself in, Hanks said, "I am nervous but I'm ready to accept anything."

Hanks said in an interview before he left his home in White Lake, N.C., that he chose to return on Veterans Day because he didn't want to exceed 30 days of being AWOL and face the more serious charge of desertion. His actions and the timing were supported by Iraq Veterans Against the War, and some members of the group were with him as he surrendered.

Reporters weren't allowed on the post as Hanks turned himself in.

Hanks' unit command has discretion over what happens now, but Hanks could face a court-martial and jail time if convicted, Fort Campbell spokesman Rick Rzepka said.

"AWOL and desertion is a self-centered act," Rzepka said. "It doesn't only affect the soldier, but in a time of war puts other soldiers at risk."

Hanks said he understands that his actions could be considered disrespectful to other veterans, but said the military would continue to see high rates of suicide and substance abuse if it ignores soldiers' mental health problems.

"It's funny that those people would say, 'Why do you have to bring this up on Veterans Day?'" Hanks said. "So when is a good time to bring it up?"

Hanks is a member of the 101st Airborne Division, which has been deployed numerous times to Iraq and Afghanistan. He said his PTSD dates to his 2008 deployment to Iraq. On his second day there, his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. He was rocked, but survived with no apparent injuries.

He said he was more disturbed by seeing the aftermath of a car bomb outside his base in Balad that wounded many civilians, including a young Iraqi girl.

"Ever since then, I think about her all the time," he said. "I have had a lot of bad dreams, just reliving it."

During his leave from his most recent deployment to Afghanistan, his family urged him to get help, but he told them he wanted to wait until he finished his deployment. As he was saying goodbye to his wife in the airport, a loud noise set off a panic attack and he had to be treated at an emergency room.

He returned to Fort Campbell to seek behavioral health treatment, but when he was referred for a meeting with a therapist, he said he was told by his commanders that they wanted him medically cleared to return to Afghanistan the next day. He spoke to a therapist for less than two minutes and was instructed to get marriage counseling when he came back.

Fort Campbell officials would not discuss the specifics of Hanks' case because of privacy rules.

Medical staff base their recommendations for deployment on the soldiers' conditions and their ability to perform duties safely, said Laura Boyd, a spokeswoman for Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital. But unit commanders ultimately make the decision regarding whether a soldier deploys, she said.

The stress has unsettled his marriage and his relationship with his children, Hanks said.

"I found her and my daughters to be overwhelming," he said. "I just thought, 'I don't want to deal with this.'"

He said he thought about seeking treatment when he returned from Iraq but was concerned about how his fellow soldiers would react.

"Once you seek it, you're kind of an outcast," he said. "They will ridicule you."

Hanks deployed to Afghanistan in May. He said he showed signs of a concussion and still suffers headaches after a mortar landed near him in August and he can't forget the sound of wounded soldiers screaming in agony as they waited for a medical evacuation.

Hanks said he has never before been in trouble during his military career.

Dr. Rebecca S. Valla, a civilian psychiatrist who volunteers with the Quaker House in North Carolina, said her assessment of Hanks is that he has post-traumatic stress disorder, a concussion and hearing loss. She said he could deteriorate if he returns to battle.

"I know not getting on a plane to Afghanistan would have its consequences, but I felt like I had to do it because they have pushed me into a corner," he said. "My health and my family is more important to me than anything."

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Associated Press writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this story from Fort Campbell, Ky.

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