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Family: Army didn't help soldier charged in sex assault

Army Spc. Aaron Michael Pernell is charged with two burglaries and a sexual assault on Fort Bragg and is a person of interest in a string of break-ins and rapes in the Fayetteville area.

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A Fort Bragg soldier charged with burglary and sexual assault tried to get mental counseling after returning from Iraq but was turned down, his family members said Thursday.

Spc. Aaron Michael Pernell, 22, of 500 Regency Drive, was charged Monday in two burglaries and a sexual assault that occurred in December in the Ste. Mere Eglise neighborhood on post.

Fayetteville police said Pernell also is a "person of interest" in a string of break-ins and rapes in the Fayetteville area over the past seven months. Investigators are comparing evidence in the cases to determine whether to charge him in any of the cases.

Vanessa Pernell said her brother deployed to Iraq in 2006 for a 15-month tour of duty and returned a changed man.

"He was always very bubbly and outgoing and playful, and when he came home, he was very withdrawn and started drinking a lot," Vanessa Pernell said. "He told me, like, the kids and the poverty over there really got to him more than anything."

Aaron Pernell approached someone in his chain of command about his need for counseling, his sister said.

"What he told me is they told him he needed to suck it up and quit being a big baby," she said.

A member of 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, he is an infantryman who fires mortars.

Brenda Pernell said she traveled to Fort Bragg in September after her son was charged with breaking into a Fayetteville home.

A mother and child were inside the home at the time, but no one was injured, police said. Aaron Pernell was released on bond after his arrest.

"This has got to stop. We need to get him some help. This cannot continue. This is not my son," Brenda Pernell recalled telling military officials.

She said she met with a chaplain and her son's first sergeant, which led to his appointments with counselors.

Maj. Brian Fickel, spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, said that Pernell could have gone up the chain of command if his immediate superiors discouraged him from seeking counseling.

"There are so many options available to the soldier. The soldier doesn't need chain-of-command approval to get counseling. You don't need permission to see a chaplain," Fickel said.

"The Army strongly encourages mental health treatment after a deployment," he said. "The Army has worked very hard to get rid of the stigma of mental health (problems among soldiers)."

Brenda Pernell said that, had her son received treatment earlier, he might have avoided the trouble he's in now and his alleged victims wouldn't have had to suffer.

"I think there are many other soldiers that are dealing with stuff that, I hope, through this will get help," she said.

The Army plans to conduct an Article 32 hearing, which is the military equivalent of a probable-cause hearing, in the next week to determine whether a court-martial is warranted, Fickel said.