A clandestine Army operative concealed his mental health problems until it was too late. Is the military to blame?

A clandestine Army operative concealed his mental health problems until it was too late. Is the military to blame?

5 Feb    Finance News
Michael Froede in Afghanistan in 2011.

Michael Froede in Afghanistan in 2011. (Courtesy of Joanne Wolff)

Michael Froede suspected he was being followed. For weeks after he returned from a highly classified mission in Vietnam, he would see people watching him in Washington, D.C. They’d be parked outside his house or tailing him while driving. Sometimes while on the road, Froede would pull a U-turn and swing back around on the suspected surveillance team to take their pictures, to let them know that he knew they were there.

At 9:30 a.m. on June 23, 2019, Froede drove his Dodge Ram to the third floor of the Carroll Creek parking garage in Frederick, Md. After backing into a parking space, he sat back in his seat, lit up a Camel cigarette and flicked the ash out the window.

Froede was a member of a secret Army unit known by the innocuous-sounding cover name Communications Technology Research Activity, or COMTECH, part of an elite group of Army hackers who received tasks from the National Security Agency. Working from the U.S. or deployed abroad, Froede was one of America’s secret soldiers, a military spy.

Froede finished his first cigarette, dropped it out the window and lit up a second. The next day he was due to see his two daughters, 9 and 12 years old, to spend a full month of leave with them.

Yet his recent behavior had seemed erratic to supervisors and peers at COMTECH, which was based out of Fort Meade. His supervisors had referred him to Barquist Army Health Clinic just four days earlier, but he was released after doctors there decided he wasn’t a danger to himself or others.

Froede put out his second cigarette. Leaving his cellphone on the driver’s seat, he closed the window and locked his truck, putting the keys in his pocket. Security camera footage showed him milling around his vehicle for a few minutes.

Then he turned and threw himself off the side of the parking garage.

He landed three stories down, where pedestrians found him 10 minutes later. Alive, but with massive head injuries, he was rushed to the hospital and put on life support.

Froede was indeed a clandestine soldier who worked highly classified operations for the United States Army in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. But the rest was a paranoid delusion.

Froede was not being followed, but rather, according to his family and an Army investigation, he had been suffering from a number of undiagnosed mental health ailments, some of which stemmed from a traumatic brain injury he had received as a young infantry soldier over 10 years prior as a result of a bomb blast in Iraq. Highly intelligent and trained in the arts of deception, Froede hid his disability from nearly everyone around him for over a decade out of fear that he would lose the career he loved, according to interviews with family members and medical records.

His suicide left friends, family and teammates wondering what more the Army could have done to prevent his death. It also raised larger questions about the health care for America’s clandestine operatives. Froede had successfully concealed his mental health issues until the last few months of his life, lying his way through rigorous screening processes. Army investigators concluded that he had built an entire false persona around himself to keep up a facade of normalcy, something he was trained to do.

“That was what he did with his whole job. He pretended to be someone he wasn’t and go places we were not supposed to be and do things we are not supposed to do,” Kate Kemplin, his ex-wife, told Yahoo News. “And you are telling me you have no clinical method to tell when they are not telling you the truth? It blows my mind.”

Kemplin blames the Army for not doing more. “You just accept everything they say?” she added. “That’s dumb. At the very least it is negligent.”

In December 2007 a roadside bomb detonated under Froede’s vehicle during a mounted patrol in Iraq. When the medics conducted a visual inspection, Froede didn’t appear physically injured, but Kemplin, then his wife, was skeptical. At the time she was halfway through her master’s degree studying traumatic brain injury, and she had seen soldiers coming back with these injuries as a nurse at the hospital at Fort Bragg.

Kemplin called his infantry unit’s surgeon, whom she knew professionally, and suggested that her husband get an MRI scan. “I know just enough about TBI to be a real pain in your ass about this,” she told him. He was polite, she recalled, but declined her request.

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“If we did that for every single soldier, we would set the MRI machine on fire,” he told her, she recounted.

But when Froede returned home from Iraq, Kemplin noticed changes in his behavior. He would get headaches, and he was irritable and would become angry for irrational reasons. She tried to get him help, but Froede was afraid it would affect his career. She even arranged for him to see a psychologist off the books without the Army knowing about it, but he refused.

Michael Froede standing with fellow soldiers.

Froede, third from left, in Iraq in 2007. (Courtesy of Joanne Wolff)

Meanwhile, Froede was trained to become a human intelligence, or HUMINT, collector, a job that involved working with and recruiting human intelligence sources — spies. As a HUMINT collector, he worked with a small team as a part of the larger special operations task force in Afghanistan during 2011.

Numerous deployments followed, including trips to North Africa. In 2015 he was deployed to Chad as a member of Third Special Forces Group in support of a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) mission, setting up intelligence collection systems and repeaters to listen in on Boko Haram, the terrorist group that was raiding and pillaging villages in the country at that time.

In 2017, Froede entered the Great Skill Program, a nontraditional career path for soldiers who conduct clandestine human intelligence operations and cyberwarfare. He attended additional training as a military spy, and his identity would have been protected by DASR, a classified database containing the names of spies and special operators.

While his career was on track, Froede was struggling with his personal life. His marriage deteriorated, and Kemplin divorced him. He remarried, but that marriage also collapsed.

Kemplin said he was taking medications, such as Effexor, to treat himself for symptoms he believed were linked to his traumatic brain injury. But he was taking those medications illegally, without a prescription, to hide it from the Army. He went off the meds entirely when he joined COMTECH because he was afraid they would show up during drug testing and he would lose his clearance and be kicked out of the unit.

Michael Froede kneeling on the ground holding a weapon.

Froede in Chad in 2016. (Courtesy of Joanne Wolff)

Even without those medications, Froede managed to project an image of a healthy, high-functioning soldier, at least for his Army superiors, who appeared to be unaware of his issues.

As a highly trained human intelligence collector, he was essentially a trained liar. “Froede was extremely well-versed in establishing a persona and was able to present the necessary front to avoid further advanced treatment or inpatient hospitalization due to his distrust in the providers and those around him,” an Army investigation report into his death stated.

In the meantime, Froede completed eight deployments to various theaters of operation, some of them classified assignments. He was also facing personal tragedies. In October 2018, his father, a recovering alcoholic, died. A few months later, in January 2019, a colleague at COMTECH, Shannon Kent, was killed by a suicide bomber in Syria. “That hit him really hard,” said his mother, Joanne Wolff. “He was devastated.”

The facade that Froede built up appeared to be crumbling, but he continued working sensitive deployments, including as part of a small team sent to Vietnam ahead of then-President Donald Trump’s expected summit with North Korean leadership.

Upon their return to the United States, his teammates began to notice that Froede was becoming increasingly paranoid and erratic, expressing mistrust of friends, family and teammates. After hearing him talk about how he was constantly being followed and monitored, they suggested he get some mental health care.

In May 2019 he presented himself as a walk-in for symptoms of anxiety and paranoia and completed three sessions with a psychotherapist. However, “SFC Froede consistently denied any suicidal ideations, plans, intent or past attempts,” an Army investigation concluded, but also noted he was sending emails to his brother, “referencing the government following him and interrogating him through his therapist.”

That month, he also sent an email to his command sergeant major in his unit with an attached handwritten letter requesting that he be taken off the current mission. “I have spent months deployed, been TDY over 112 weeks, I have had two marriages fail and do not live with my children…all because I believe that my efforts overseas would keep the fight out of the neighborhood my children live in and they could worry about what version of smart phone they have instead of their own safety,” he wrote.

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Due to his mental health issues, Froede felt alone and ostracized by his teammates. “My peers do not want to talk to me anymore,” he wrote.

The letter he attached detailed his affair with a unit member who, he wrote, in turn cheated on him with a married officer in the unit. It then went into his paranoid beliefs that he was under surveillance by his Army unit because he felt the woman he’d had the affair with reported him as an insider threat in retaliation for his reporting the affair, which would be against Army regulations regarding adultery and fraternization.

Michael Froede with his first wife, Kate Kemplin, and his two daughters.

Froede with his first wife, Kate Kemplin, and his two daughters. (Courtesy of Joanne Wolff)

Later, the command sergeant major said he had a conversation with Froede about the email and letter. and that at the time Froede seemed “on edge, overly nervous and by his own admission ‘paranoid.’ He seemed tired, stressed and did not articulate himself with the same fluidity as in our previous engagements.”

He also told a teammate during a smoke break about how he was being tailed and followed by a surveillance team. He explained that they would follow him to North Carolina, and on a trip to Disneyland, where he said they had people watching him during his flight. His mother told Yahoo News he kept a notebook of license plates belonging to vehicles he believed were following him. At one point, a teammate visited him and found that he had removed all the lightbulbs in his home from their sockets, believing they were used to eavesdrop on him.

By June, Froede was in a final downward spiral. He had scheduled leave and was preparing his apartment for the arrival of his two daughters. After sending the letter to his sergeant major, he was referred to Barquist Army Health Clinic, where providers found him not to be a threat to himself or others. He also requested that the clinic not communicate with his unit about his treatment or condition.

Froede’s teammate whom he had previously confided in, and also copied on his bizarre letter, remained in touch with him. The teammate even persuaded him to see an operational psychologist at Meade Behavioral Health. But while sharing a cigarette outside one of the unit’s buildings in June, Froede made a startling admission, telling his teammate that if he were ever to kill himself, he’d jump.

“There is a nice parking garage in Frederick by the river,” he said, smiling and laughing as if it were a joke. He also stated that he no longer trusted his mental health care providers, believing his therapist to be an undercover CIA interrogator. “I just don’t trust it,” Froede said. “The [surveillance] teams just won’t leave me alone.”

In the days leading up to his death, Froede could not recognize his own co-workers in the office, his mother was told by his colleagues after his death. He even had to be walked to his truck in the parking lot because he could not recognize it.

On June 23, 2019, Kemplin received an email from her ex-husband that read: “I went to behavioral health for PTSD and it was really a CIA interrogator. I can’t sue the U.S. Government but you can.”

Hours later, she received a phone call that Froede was in the hospital in critical condition. She got in her car and began driving to Maryland.

The next day, after she arrived, his family members made the decision to take Froede off life support.

For America’s clandestine operatives, getting mental health care can be particularly challenging. “There is always going to be a concern that if I self-report, people fear they will lose their security clearance or at least their job,” said Douglas London, who served as a CIA operations officer for 34 years. “I think folks are reluctant to admit to a weakness.”

London said both the CIA and the military intelligence community have made psychologists available to their personnel, but often it’s not enough. “You have folks who are superconfident, usually have an ego, and believe through sheer force of will you can overcome any impediment, so how do you offset that?” he said.

Those struggling can be referred but not forced to seek mental health care, and London pointed out that it runs up against HIPAA, privacy issues and potential litigation.

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Under the current rules, co-workers can report their colleagues for being potential inside threats but cannot report them as someone who just needs to see a therapist. “It’s hard to find that balance,” London said, noting that the CIA now provides mental health professionals to employees who can be seen without alerting the chain of command.

But there’s still a reluctance among many to seek help, a Joint Special Operations Command source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Unfortunately, it’s a performance game. If you can do the job, less questions are asked,” the source said. “Also the guys don’t report it because they want to be in the game.”

There remains a stigma around mental health care in compartmentalized intelligence units, according to an Army intelligence official who asked not to be named because of the classified nature of his work. “This is huge, as the major item we are assessed for and relied on is our emotional intelligence, cognition and ability to operate in ambiguity, disconnected from being ‘green,’ to operate in the gray and not look and smell like [Special Operations Forces] guys,” he explained.

The Army Intelligence Command (INSCOM), under which COMTECH falls, declined to answer a detailed list of questions about mental health issues affecting soldiers assigned to the command, citing a new investigation into Froede’s death.

Michael Froede and his daughters.

Froede with his children. (Courtesy of Joanne Wolff)

Statistics about mental health care for clandestine Army personnel are not publicly available, but anecdotal evidence suggests that INSCOM has a growing problem with suicides. The command’s senior enlisted leader killed himself in 2020, and the previous INSCOM commander, Gary Johnston, who oversaw the investigations into Froede’s and his own sergeant major’s deaths, took his own life in early 2022.

The stresses that soldiers face are often compounded when they return home. “Eighty percent of the time, our operations, deployments and training are classified, and we aren’t permitted to tell the family,” the intelligence official said. “So lots of details to remember include what not to bring back home, and the more you do, the more your secrets have secrets.”

Froede was not alone in his struggles. A few months later, in September, two members of the highly secretive JSOC intelligence unit known as Task Force Orange took their own lives, sending shock waves through the Army’s clandestine community.

A spokesperson for Special Operations Command declined to discuss classified units but stated that “the command is consistently improving its behavior health care through innovative interventions and training providers on evidence-based therapies.”

Yahoo News obtained and reviewed Froede’s entire Army medical record and found a single document from 2009 in which he sought treatment for PTSD after his deployment to Iraq. He self-reported feeling paranoid, stating that fears of combat would take over when he saw cars or people coming too close, and he felt they were following him even though they were not. This led to a strong physical and emotional reaction, including rapid heart and breath rates and feelings of suffocation and trembling.

Those symptoms appear similar to the ones he experienced in 2019 prior to his death.

For 70 years, military doctors and health care providers were exempt from malpractice lawsuits. However, when Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, it created a crack in that policy, known as the Feres Doctrine. Service members can now file claims for compensation using the Federal Torts Claim Act. Froede’s ex-wife and mother have each filed individual tort claims against the U.S. Army for damages resulting from what they say is his unit’s negligence toward attending to Froede’s mental health.

“They took a good horse and rode him to death, knowingly, and willingly,” his mother said. “They let him burn himself out.”

“A trained layperson could see that he was at risk, and they failed to intervene,” Kemplin said.

Within 72 hours of submitting her tort claim — which can trigger a lawsuit — Kemplin received a phone call from a military lawyer at Fort Meade asking her if she needed the money.

“I’m a professor, and my kids are never going to starve. I’m going to set a precedent and embarrass you,” she told him. “I’m coming for you, and I will sue you individually.”

Even in his final troubled moments, Froede also appeared to blame the U.S. government for his undoing.

In a note left for his girlfriend the day he jumped from the parking garage, Froede spoke cryptically of Russian informants and spyware loaded onto the phone of one of his teammates. He insisted he never sold secrets or stole from the government, something he had never been accused of doing.

The last line of the note read, “The things we do in the name of America.”

Michael Froede in Vietnam in 2014.

Froede in Vietnam in 2014. (Courtesy of Joanne Wolff)

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