Eddie Brabazon

A family photo shows Eddie Brabazon the day he joined the army at age 18. He was accepted into an elite fraternity, the 505th Parachute Infantry regiment. Less than three months into his second deployment to the Middle East, Eddie shot himself in the head at a palace compound in Baghdad. (MARK MIRKO / May 4, 2006)

In the 17 months after their son, Eddie, announced he was heading off to fight the war on terror, Margaret and Edward Brabazon of Bensalem, Pa., had held their breath.

They were accustomed to holding their breath with the boy they had taken in as a foster child at age 3 and adopted at 12 -- the boy who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention-deficit disorder by the time he was 10, and who had spent his early teenage years in a psychiatric hospital and group homes for the emotionally disturbed.

They watched with bewildered pride as the young man they had affectionately nicknamed "Crazy Eddie'' was handed a uniform and an M-4 rifle and accepted into an elite fraternity -- the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Although Margaret protested, the 18-year-old soldier also had informed his parents that he had stopped taking his psychotropic medications because he "wanted to be like everyone else,'' Margaret recalled.

"We were surprised they took him, with the kind of mental problems he had, but we figured the Army must know what they're doing,'' Margaret said. "We didn't think they'd send him into combat.''

Today, the Brabazons regret those assumptions.

On March 9, 2004, less than three months into his second deployment to the Middle East, Spec. Edward W. Brabazon shot himself in the head with his rifle at a palace compound in Baghdad, the Army has concluded. He was 20.

The Brabazons say they have trouble making sense of the Army's investigation into his death, which notes his psychiatric past.

"They talked about how he had a history of mental problems,'' Margaret said. "I said, `No kidding. If you knew he had mental problems, then why was he there?'''

Eddie Brabazon was there because the U.S. military has knowingly sent mentally ill troops to Iraq -- in conflict with its own regulations -- and turned a blind eye to the mental fitness of thousands of other service members, a Courant investigation has found.

Despite a congressional mandate to assess the mental health of every soldier sent to a combat zone, interviews and Defense Department records obtained by The Courant reveal a fractured pre-deployment screening process in which less than 1 percent of deploying soldiers ever see a mental health professional. It is a practice that has put unfit service members in harm's way, increasing their risk for suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The military's own studies suggest that as many as one in 11 troops is suffering from a major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder or PTSD that substantially impairs their ability to function at the time they are deployed to war. But military screeners have arranged mental health evaluations for fewer than one in 300 deploying troops, according to a Courant analysis of screening data for more than 930,000 troops processed from March 2003 through October 2005.

And some troops have been sent to war in violation of military regulations, which bar the deployment of troops with mental disorders that can interfere with their duties.

In addition, despite the military's promises to pay closer attention to the mental health of service members following a spate of suicides in 2003, the data indicate that soldiers who report psychological issues are more likely to be deployed now than at the start of the war.

Overall, soldiers who screened positive for possible mental health problems were deemed fit for war 85 percent of the time, according to the data. Those deployment decisions were made with more than 93 percent of troops who screened positive never receiving a referral for a mental health evaluation.

With the military scrambling to find enough combat troops, some soldier advocates say the reason for the inadequate mental health screening is evident.

"Command pressure to deploy their people has kind of swept away any efforts that might have been made to improve screening,'' said Kathleen Gilberd, who counsels service members in San Diego and serves as co-chairwoman of the Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild.

For some, that pressure may have proved fatal. The Courant's analysis of confirmed and likely suicide cases among U.S. troops in 2005 shows that at least seven, or about one-third, of the soldiers who killed themselves in Iraq did so within three months of being deemed mentally fit and sent into combat. Suicide experts say the vast majority of those who take their own lives are suffering from depression or bipolar disorder at the time, and say it is doubtful soldiers would spontaneously develop a serious mental illness so quickly after deployment.

The pre-deployment screening misses so many troubled troops in part because it relies entirely on self-reporting, in the form of a single question on a written form that asks service members whether they have received mental health care in the past year -- a disclosure the military knows its members are unlikely to make.

That reluctance is borne out by Defense Department records obtained by The Courant. In the first 32 months of the war, just 3 percent of deploying troops disclosed that they had sought care or counseling for their mental health in the past year. That small percentage captured through self-reporting is far lower than the more than 20 percent of deploying troops who were found to have mental disorders -- 9.3 percent of them considered serious -- in a 2004 study by military doctors.