Military doctor blames Army addiction program for 2 deaths

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Photo illustration by Devin N. Boyer/U.S. Air Force
Photo illustration by Devin N. Boyer/U.S. Air Force

Military doctor blames Army addiction program for 2 deaths

by: Gregg Zoroya | .
USA Today | .
published: May 16, 2015

FORT GORDON, Ga. — Army psychiatrist Patrick Lillard still anguishes over that night four years ago, when a drunken soldier shot to death a sheriff's deputy along a shoulder of an expressway outside this base and then turned the assault rifle on himself.

Now Lillard has made an extraordinary decision to speak out about the case: If only the Army had listened to him, Spc. Christopher Hodges would have been in a hospital for alcohol addiction and two lives could have been saved.

Twice before the shootings, Lillard urged that Hodges, 26, an Iraq War veteran, receive at least a month of intensive treatment. Twice his recommendations were ignored by an Army substance abuse program that allows officers without a medical background to overrule a doctor.

"Two people died, and it could have been prevented," Lillard told USA TODAY. He called on the military to "step up — 'man up,' as they say in the Army — and admit this was a tragic mistake, or error, or whatever word they want to use. Take responsibility. Explain in plain language to the family of Christopher Hodges and the police officer and make sure it does not happen again."

USA TODAY reported in March that the Army's substance abuse program is in disarray, with thousands of soldiers turned away from needed treatment, dozens of suicides linked to poor care and too few qualified counselors. The Army responded to the story by ordering an ongoing investigation of all 54 substance abuse outpatient clinics.

Lillard, 74, said he chose to speak out about the Hodges case after USA TODAY's report in hopes that other lives won't be lost because soldiers are denied substance abuse treatment.

Hodges' parents and widow agreed to waive privacy protections to allow the story to be told for the first time.

Lillard resigned from the Army, effective Friday, at least in part over disagreements with the way patient care is handled.

In a statement, the Army said officials did everything they could to support Hodges "through an outpatient program that included ... abstinence from alcohol, mandatory urinalysis and breathalyzer testing, compliance with appointments and intervention such as attending weekly group counseling sessions (and) individual therapy sessions." The soldier also was sent to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and alcohol-abuse prevention training.

The Army emphasized that Hodges did not want hospitalization if it interfered with this training. However, soldiers can be compelled to undergo Army-supported treatment under penalty of separation from the service, Lillard said.

Killing shocks community

The early morning tragedy on Oct. 23, 2011, shook neighboring Augusta, where The Augusta Chronicle said in an editorial that the deputy's killing was "pure evil" and demanded the military explain how such a thing could happen.

In the months leading up to the shooting, Hodges was in weekly therapy at a substance abuse outpatient clinic at Fort Gordon, according to medical records. But Lillard, acting director of intensive inpatient addiction care at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at the base, said the soldier needed more than outpatient therapy. He needed hospitalization and close scrutiny.

USA TODAY reported in March that the majority of Army outpatient clinics are operating far below professional standards for treating drug and alcohol abuse. But the Fort Gordon clinic is among a small number that are rated the best, according to an internal assessment by the Army's senior substance abuse counselors.

Substance abuse counselors there uncovered much about what was troubling Hodges, an aviation operations specialist and Augusta native who was raised in a deeply religious Army family where everyone served, including his mom and dad.

Hodges wanted help for his alcoholism, telling therapists he was a hard drinker since age 14 and that alcohol abuse led to a perforated ulcer and emergency surgery at Fort Gordon in July 2011. Seven weeks before the shooting, the aspiring rapper showed his counselors a poetic prayer he had written that was titled, "So Scared." It read in part, "How can I lead people to Jesus, when I'm throwin' up in the sink. ... If I turn my back on (God), Satan will give me everything I've hoped for. I don't want that."

Lillard met with Hodges in August 2011 and noted that the soldier "appreciates he is into very serious health consequences with his alcohol use and is willing to do whatever is necessary. The very strong recommendation is (hospitalization)."

A month later, after Hodges relapsed, Lillard saw him again. "(He) must go to a higher level of care and he is (in) very high risk for relapse and in danger for his physical health as well," the doctor said in his notes.

But Hodges' company commander, Capt. Heath Mullins, would not allow it. Mullins later told an investigator that his decision stemmed from the fact that Hodges was a member of the Tennessee National Guard and only temporarily on active duty while attending air-traffic control training at Fort Gordon. Mullins said he thought Hodges would return to the National Guard before hospitalization could begin.

"I would have to contact the State of Tennessee for their recommendation and plan of action," he said in a sworn statement. There was no indication he tried to do so. Mullins, now a major in the Army, could not be reached for comment.

Lillard said he would have hospitalized Hodges immediately. "I'm convinced this (tragedy) wouldn't have happened," the doctor says. "I'll go to my grave believing that."

A troubled soldier

The depth of Hodges' distress was discovered by investigators after the shootings: how he was consumed with financial and emotional pressure going through a divorce; how family and friends were certain he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder following 15 months in Iraq at the height of that war; how he fantasized in journals about suicide and tasting "the cold steel of the barrel" in his mouth; and how he always kept close at hand an assault rifle that he had purchased.

All of it boiled over on a crisp autumn night with Hodges at the wheel of his 2004 Cadillac DeVille. according to police reports. He'd been drinking malt liquor, Jägermeister and Red Bull all night, and was bickering with his girlfriend, Raven Harper, about his intoxication — and the volume on the radio.

Hodges swerved off the expressway onto the grass, where the violence escalated, according to a report, based on what Harper told police and a recording of Harper's 911 call.

She scrambled out of the car shoeless, a white, diamond-shaped earring flying into the grass. He circled the car slowly, bumping her before stopping perpendicular to the freeway. She called 911. He yelled for her to get back in the car.

"All I know is that he's like very intoxicated and I don't know what his next move is," she told the dispatcher. "He has been overseas a couple of times and I just think that when he becomes like under the influence ... he's just back there."

As vehicles sped by, Hodges retrieved a rifle from the trunk. Harper thought she heard him praying, then fired two or three rounds at a time in the direction of passing cars, as she grew frantic.

Between her sobs and his gunfire, she pleaded into her phone, "Please send that car. Can somebody please come get me?"

Then there was a hail of gunfire, and Harper ran down the road screaming that a policeman had been shot.

Deputy struck nine times

Richmond County Sheriff's Deputy James "J.D." Paugh, 47, was working traffic control at the county fairgrounds that night. Divorced, he loved being a motorcycle officer and the trappings it offered in a city defined by the Masters golf tournament each year.

"He could go anywhere he wanted," said his older brother, Robert, "and it also allowed him to help people. He was really there just to serve."

As he headed home in the dark that Sunday, he spotted the Cadillac in the grass. "J.D. probably thought it was a stranded motorist that needed some kind of assistance," Robert Paugh said.

Before J.D. Paugh could drop the kickstand on his police Harley-Davidson Road King, Hodges opened fire. Rounds struck the motorcycle windshield, grazed Paugh's helmet, shot away his microphone and drilled into the motor cylinder. The deputy was struck again and again. He somehow managed to pull his pistol and get off two or three shots, one bullet passing through Hodges' right forearm. At one point, Harper saw the officer crawling on the ground.

Hodges emptied a 30-round magazine, slammed in another, and nearly emptied that one. He had three bullets left when he turned the rifle around, placed the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

In all, Paugh was struck nine times, including through the heart. He was dead by the time officers arrived.

A foundation later established to honor the dead officer has raised nearly $200,000 to purchase safety equipment for area police departments. The motorcade that followed his casket the day he was buried stretched through Augusta for several miles.

"It's a damn shame," said an emotional Robert Paugh, after learning that psychiatrist Lillard had twice urged a lengthy hospitalization for Hodges before the shooting. "To think that my brother could be alive today."

Parents condemn Army leadership

Lillard said that when he read the next morning about the deaths "I was angry to being tearful."

Last month, Christopher Hodges' parents, Fred and Elisia, met with Lillard and his wife, Nina, in Augusta for lunch. The doctor explained in detail how their son had tried so hard to get help.

Fred Hodges is a chief warrant officer class 4 in the Army. He and his wife said they took some solace from Lillard's words. "Because now I know at least (Christopher) was seeking the proper help, like I've always asked him to do," the father said, "and unfortunately the leadership and some of the policies and processes did not support him fully."

The Army colonel investigating the Hodges case in 2011 recommended that, in the future, if a psychiatrist's recommendation is overruled, the matter be taken up for higher medical and command review. The family later received a copy of that investigation. But that recommendation was blacked out.

There was no word from the Army on whether the policy change was ever implemented, but there is little evidence attitudes have changed.

In late April, commanders at Fort Gordon initially objected to enrolling a soldier into outpatient substance abuse care, despite the fact that she had fallen into a coma after a deadly mixture of alcohol and sedative medication, Lillard said. Under persistent pressure from addiction specialists, her command finally relented.

Lillard said the Army still looks upon the hard-drinking soldier as a tough stereotype, a problem that can be handled chiefly through discipline. "It's still not accepted that we're dealing with medical problems," he said, "with real disease and illnesses."

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