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Ian Fishback's death spotlights the mental illness crisis suffered by veterans


U.S. Army Major Ian Fishback died last month. He was 42. Fishback served four combat tours, two of them with special forces. But you might know his name because in 2005, Fishback blew the whistle on U.S. troops who were torturing people in Iraq. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Ian Fishback deployed with the 82nd Airborne to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. It was there that he saw troops using so-called enhanced interrogation tactics, including breaking prisoners' bones and stripping them naked in the freezing cold. Fishback later talked about it on the "Hi-Phi Nation" podcast.


IAN FISHBACK: It wasn't just a problem that we weren't following the Geneva Conventions. It was a problem that there was no clear standard to replace the Geneva Conventions. So people were - people were just basically making their own stuff up.

LAWRENCE: The world had seen pictures from the Abu Ghraib scandal, but at the time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Congress those were bad apples who would be punished. Fishback knew different.


FISHBACK: My concern was that these soldiers were being scapegoated and that we weren't being honest to Congress.

LAWRENCE: Fishback protested within his Army chain of command for over a year. Then he called a former Pentagon official, Marc Garlasco, who was working with Human Rights Watch. Garlasco says Fishback was worried about the Iraqi victims of torture but also his own soldiers.

MARC GARLASCO: But he was worried about the moral injury that they had sustained having participated in the torture of, you know, of human beings.

LAWRENCE: That conversation would lead Fishback to contact Senator John McCain, who later that year pushed the Detainee Treatment Act through Congress. Time magazine named Fishback among the 100 most influential people of 2005. At the time, he was about to qualify for special forces. Fishback didn't see why being a whistleblower would change that. His sister, Jazcinda Jorgensen, says her brother lived by a code.

JAZCINDA JORGENSEN: There's a right and there's a wrong, and you do what's right regardless of the cost. He's kind of stood by that throughout his life. And so when he recognized it, he wasn't intimidated necessarily by the size of the opposing force.

LAWRENCE: He deployed twice more to Iraq with special forces, but some in his unit distrusted him, Fishback said, or thought he was soft on the enemy. He got called a coward for opposing one mission but then reckless for suggesting another.


FISHBACK: I said, look, man, I can't be cowardly and reckless at the same time. You got to pick. And the difference between these two missions is the last one was you got to go shoot stuff and fly around in helicopters. And this one, you don't.

LAWRENCE: Fishback said he still loved the Army, but he'd lost faith in the Iraq War. In 2014, he left the military and pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Michigan. That's how he met Georgetown professor Nancy Sherman.

NANCY SHERMAN: I knew him both as a warrior scholar and as someone who turned to me as a confidant.

LAWRENCE: Friends and family were starting to notice the strain. She can't be sure, but Sherman thinks part of it was triggered by Fishback's last two deployments.

SHERMAN: Where there's a real sense of trust betrayals, it can lead to a kind of paranoia. You know, as the years went on, I saw this in Ian, and it broke my heart.

LAWRENCE: Fishback was up and down for several years, but in September, he was involuntarily committed after behaving erratically in public. He was heavily medicated. Friends and family were trying to raise money for a private clinic, trying to find a bed at the VA, trying to get Fishback out of adult foster care. That's where he was found dead on November 19. The cause is still unclear.

GARLASCO: But he was Captain America.

LAWRENCE: That's Marc Garlasco again.

GARLASCO: It's just hard for me to comprehend that this is how the life of Captain America would end - in mental anguish while being forcibly medicated in some facility. And it just - it's a real damning, damning statement on 20 years of war and how we treat the veterans of this country.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.