by Rebecca Ruiz
In May, the Colorado Springs Gazette published an exhaustive account of how wounded and mentally ill soldiers are being kicked out of the Army for minor offenses and misconduct related to their wartime injuries.
Since then, the revelations have prompted new legislation that would assess whether or not the Department of Defense is improperly discharging soldiers, a charge that the government denies.
“There is not a deliberate effort to remove soldiers from the Army without proper medical evaluation and consideration of their war-related conditions,” an Army spokesman at the Pentagon told me.
“All soldiers are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice — this includes soldiers in the medical review board process. Our leaders appreciate the honorable service of our soldiers. However, it is the soldier’s responsibility to ensure they adhere to the Army Values while going through their individual separation processes.”
For a soldier on the opposite end of this experience, however, trying to mount a defense against accusations of misconduct — especially those linked to wartime injuries — can be a byzantine process that ultimately ends in heartbreak.
The Gazette series, reported by Dave Philipps, looked at three separate incidents each involving a combat veteran in which units at Fort Carson in Colorado appeared to willfully ignore mental and physical health conditions that played a role in misconduct, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
Kash Alvaro, for example, was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI after enduring multiple bomb blasts in Afghanistan in 2009. When he returned to Fort Carson, he was cited and punished for violating code by missing appointments, missing work, arriving late to formation and getting in an argument.
As Philipps points out, these behaviors, while disruptive, can be symptoms of both TBI and PTSD. Alvaro, 24, should have been given a dditional consideration or dispensation due to his injuries, or admitted to a warrior transition unit where convalescing would be a priority.
Instead, Alvaro said that his unit harassed him, and the situation escalated to the point where he went AWOL temporarily. He expected a harsh punishment when he returned to Fort Carson two weeks later to apologize, but was thrown in county jail without his anti-seizure medication.
Alvaro was then asked to sign paperwork for an other-than honorable discharge known as a Chapter 10, which allows a soldier facing a court-martial to resign instead. The designation can bar a veteran from getting long-term medical and disability benefits .
“They said if I signed this paperwork everything would be alright and I would get out,” Alvaro told the Gazette. “I thought they said I’d still have my benefits. I didn’t really understand. I’m not as smart as I used to be.” He left the military in January 2012.
“It was like my best friend betrayed me,” he said. “I had given the Army everything, and they took everything away.” After the story was published, Philipps said the Department of Veterans Affairs reached out to Alvaro to enroll him in VA healthcare.
“Fort Carson and the U.S. Army care for and treat each Soldier based on his or her individual case and circumstances,” Fort Carson officials told me in a statement. “The Army does not and will never discharge Soldiers to avoid providing the needed medical care and benefits. Standards of discipline and accountability apply to every Soldier, whether assigned to a unit or to a warrior-care environment.”
‘Teaching These Soldiers A Lesson’
The Gazette found that stories like Alvaro’s are not uncommon. Misconduct discharges at the eight Army posts where the majority of combat units are located have increased by 67 percent in recent years. Overall, such discharges are up by more than 25 percent in the Army since 2009. Philipps argues that the need to trim the Army’s ranks by as many as 180,000 soldiers in the next decade have put considerable pressure on Army leaders. Tightening discipline standards may be seen as a way to thin the force.
The fact tha t so many troops have returned with PTSD or TBI — as many as 500,000 — has also complicated matters. “Symptoms can include bad decision-making, frayed memory and incendiary anger, all of which can be indistinguishable from misconduct,” Philipps wrote. “Commanders struggle to determine which soldiers are badly injured and which are just bad.”
The Gazette published an internal email indicating that the lead prosecutor at Fort Carson advised other lawyers to seek a faster way to discharge a soldier under review for misconduct while also going through the lengthy medical retirement process, which can award service members lifetime medical and disability benefits depending on the severity of their injuries.
“The soldier continues to use drugs, doesn’t show up to work, gets in trouble all the time … and believes himself untouchable just because he is pending (medical discharge.),” the prosecutor wrote in an email in August 2009. “I think it is time to start teaching these kinds of Soldiers a lesson.”
Philipps reported that after the email was sent, Chapter 10 discharges at Fort Carson increased from 30 in 2009 to 90 in 2010 and continued to rise the following year. Army lawyers at Fort Carson told the Gazette that the rule for Chapter 10 discharges had been misused during that time.
According to the Pentagon spokesman, a commander can consider a number of factors when evaluating punishment or discipline, including what effect the soldier’s retention will have on “good order and morale;” the likelihood that events or conditions that led to discharge proceedings will continue; the chance that a sol dier will be a “disruptive or undesirable influence;” and, the soldier’s entire military record, including past contributions.
No ‘Quick Fix’
The Gazette series drew the attention of congressman and Marine Corps veteran Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who recently proposed a corrective amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation (Sec. 593, PDF) proposes to task a commission with studying whether the Department of Defense “adequately” addresses the role of combat-related mental disorders and TBI in disciplinary actions against soldiers.
“While there are many ways to root out waste in the Pentagon, denying combat wounded veterans t heir earned benefits because of dismissals for behavioral issues linked to PTSD or TBI should not be one of them,” Coffman said in a statement to me. “The importance of this commission is that it will assess whether the disciplinary mechanisms in place should be revisited in light of new information regarding the connection between PTSD, TBI, and behavioral problems.”
If Coffman’s amendment passes intact, members of the commission would be appointed soon after and charged with delivering a report to the president and Congress by June 30, 2014.
That’s a long time to wait for a soldier in the midst of being kicked out, but Philipps acknowledges there is no “quick fix” to prevent unfair or questionable discharges from happening.
The soldiers who do recei ve legal assistance often get it from retired service members who can help them parse the regulations that guide discharge proceedings.
“They certainly never brief soldiers on how to fight the Army bureaucracy,” Philipps told me. “A lot of the guys are young, they have cognitive deficits from PTSD or TBI. So for those guys to patiently navigate the system is difficult.”
Philipps remains focused on tracking other-than honorable cases at Fort Carson. “For us, it’s really a central story,” he said. “Ten years of war here is very real and palpable.”
This post was updated at 5:30 ET with a comment from Fort Carson officials.
This article is available online at: www.forbes.com