Written by Jennifer Steinhauer
Ian Fishback saw the world as cleaved between the just and unjust, the exemplary and the erring. A scholar-athlete from a small town in northern Michigan, he chose the military as his path toward a principled life, and when the Army failed its own credo during the war in Iraq, he persisted in making the truth known.
Fishback, who had retired from the Army, died last week, in circumstances still unclear, alone and broke in a group home, convinced he was being persecuted by the very forces he had once embraced. He was 42.
The short life and needless death of Fishback underscore the costs of two decades of war far beyond the battlefields and the overall strain on the nation’s mental health system. He is one of many high-profile veterans of the global war on terrorism whose lives have ended in tragedy.
“There are many potential root causes here,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., referring to Fishback’s decline. Malinowski was director of Human Rights Watch when he first met Fishback in 2005 and connected him with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who also wanted to expose wrongdoing in Iraq.
“There is a veteran mental health crisis in this country, and there is a shortage of facilities and of helpers,” he said. “We panic when we are running out of ICU beds in America, but we accept that we don’t have enough mental health beds.”
A shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric nurse practitioners across the United States has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, mental health experts say, and lawmakers have struggled to find a solution. Staffing shortages at the Department of Veterans Affairs may have hampered access to care, possibly including for Fishback.
In 2005, as an Army captain, he revealed that fellow members of the 82nd Airborne Division had systematically abused detainees in Iraq. His allegations led to the passage of far-reaching anti-torture legislation championed by McCain.
Fishback, who served four combat tours in Iraq, later earned a doctorate, taught at West Point, and became a sought-after speaker on the subject of moral injury and military service.
In recent years, he also had paranoid delusions and deep depression, and was prone to outbursts that caused him to lose jobs and relationships. He oscillated between defiance about his fragile mental state and desperation as he searched for help, a dozen family members, former professional associates and friends said in interviews.
Since September, alarmed at his physical and mental deterioration, his friends and his sister had scrambled to move him from hospitals and low-income adult group homes where, they said, he was heavily medicated with antipsychotic drugs, to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. Appeals on his behalf to the department went unanswered last week, they said. Fishback was found dead in his room at the group home after breakfast Friday.
“He was always driven by a deeply humanistic sense that people deserve respect, in this case detainees,” said Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, who was deeply involved in trying to help Fishback over the last decade, including in the last week of his life.
She added, “He had an enormous sense of purpose and rigidity, and rigidity doesn’t make for resilience often.”
As a young man, Fishback was known around his small town as a high achiever in school and sports — running hills with a backpack full of weights while others were content to do the slow jog, his sister, Jazcinda Jorgensen, said. He debated classmates over his strict moral code.
“He was a straight arrow in every way,” Jorgensen said.
A high school teacher, noting his qualifications and financial need, suggested the military, so he applied and was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“He always had a real strong sense of morality and justice and thought it was best to use that as an officer,” his sister said.
He graduated from West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree in Middle Eastern studies in 2001 and served in the Army until 2014, including four combat tours with the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces.
One day in 2005, Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon analyst and then a senior military adviser for Human Rights Watch, was clearing off his desk when his phone rang. The person on the other end said, “Hello sir, I am a U.S. Army officer, and I am concerned there has been torture of detainees in my unit,” Garlasco recalled. He added, “Needless to say, that piqued the interest.”
After numerous email exchanges, the two met at an Applebee’s restaurant in La Grange, Georgia, where over iced tea Fishback described horrific abuse of Iraqi prisoners between September 2003 and April 2004 that included exposure to extreme temperatures, beatings and sleep deprivation at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base near Fallujah.
Fishback had appealed to superiors and even clergy for 17 months before he turned to Capitol Hill for help. “He said, ‘I want John McCain,’” Garlasco said.
A Human Rights Watch team took him to meet with the senator, who asked to see him alone.
The Detainee Treatment Act passed the Senate 90-9 and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005.
“It had to nothing to do with personal aggrandizement,” said Richard Fontaine, then an aide to McCain. “This was solely about trying to correct a deep flaw in American security policy.”
But Fishback struggled as he worked toward a master’s degree in philosophy and political science at the University of Michigan, which he earned in 2012. He met Sherman during his studies and she became his confidante.
When she noticed that he was showing symptoms of paranoia, “I worried a lot,” she said. She helped him find a therapist.
He taught at West Point from 2012-15, and was awarded his doctorate from the University of Michigan, but trouble continued, including altercations with students and faculty.
“He was becoming argumentative,” said Noemi Ford, a psychologist and trauma expert, and the wife of a childhood friend who worked over the last week of Fishback’s life to get him into treatment.
In 2016 he was hospitalized for the first time, said Clara Hoisington McCormick, his ex-wife, whom he had met at West Point and married in 2001. (A subsequent short marriage also ended in divorce.) He was increasingly alienated from his military colleagues, she said. He had trouble building relationships.
Garlasco, too, was concerned. They had kept in touch intermittently over the years, and he considered Fishback a friend. “In 2018 I got an email that put the hairs up on my neck,” he said. “He said that people were after him.”
In July 2019, Fishback informed Garlasco in an email that the CIA was after him, he recalled. “I was like, dude, call me.” Fishback was in Europe with a new position. “He said, ‘I am going to give classified information to foreign governments if you don’t get the CIA off my back.’ It was there that I lost the thread.”
The job in Europe unraveled later that year.
Fishback returned to Michigan, but a series of fights there led to a court-mandated treatment stay, which he violated. He was arrested after an argument at a football game with an ROTC officer in September. Then came a series of stays at low-cost group homes while friends tried to get him into a Veterans Affairs hospital in Battle Creek.
“It was horrible to listen to him there,” Ford said. “He was crying. He said, ‘Can you help me? I can’t trust my family.’”
His friends started a GoFundMe campaign to pay for a high-end treatment center in Massachusetts. He began speaking slowly in phone conversations, said Ford, who attributed it to high levels of psychotropic drugs.
In an email, a patient coordinator for Veterans Affairs who saw him on Thursdays described his appearance as “alarming,” noting that the formerly fit Army major could barely walk and that his “arms were locked in a 90-degree position and he never changed his facial expression throughout our talk.”
“He had breakfast Friday morning,” Ford said, “and later they found him dead.”
The Battle Creek facility called his sister that day. Jorgensen said she responded: “It’s too late. He’s gone.”
“We are saddened over the loss of Army Veteran Ian Fishback and extend our sincere condolences to his family,” said Terrence Hayes, a spokesman for the department. “VA has been in contact with the Fishback family to offer support and any appropriate services to assist them during this time. VA remains dedicated to making sure that all veterans get the care they need in a timely fashion.”
During a panel discussion in 2015, Fishback spoke about the notion of moral injury in war and the toll “that comes when you’re in a situation where you have to watch your back, so to speak, with the people you’re supposed to be able to trust and try to navigate that over time”
“Trying to maintain your own virtue, if you will, in the face of a really bad situation is very challenging,” he said.