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2013-05-22

Other than Honorable: Army Strips Benefits of Wounded Veterans by Kicking Them Out for Misconduct

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Guests

Dave Philipps, an investigative reporter who covers military veterans for the Colorado Springs Gazette. His three-part series published this week is "Other than Honorable." He is also the author of the book, Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home. In 2009, he wrote the award-winning two-part series, "Casualties of War."

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A new investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette says the U.S. Army is downsizing from a decade of war by increasingly kicking out soldiers, including wounded combat veterans. Despite serving multiple tours of duty, the wounded soldiers lose their medical care and other benefits for life. We’re joined by Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Dave Philipps, whose three-part series, "Other than Honorable," tells the stories of several discharged veterans suffering severe health issues from injuries sustained in combat. "The Army’s difficulty in dealing with this is not an Army problem; it’s a societal problem. We’re talking about over two million people who have deployed in the last 10 years," Philipps says. "Over 500,000 of them have more than three deployments. These are people who may have issues that they need our help with. And if the Army isn’t sort of the first responder, the person who gets them on the right track, and the Army in fact, through its actions, is banning them from care for the rest of their lives, that’s going to affect our society for a really long time."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we move into Memorial Day weekend. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a major new investigation that reveals how after the longest period of war in American history, the number of soldiers being discharged for misconduct is at its highest rate in recent times. Many of the soldiers are wounded veterans who served multiple tours of duty. When they are kicked out, they lose their medical care and other benefits for life.

A three-part series published this week by the Colorado Gazette features the story of several such veterans, including Army Sergeant Jerrald Jensen, who had the lower half of his face shattered by an IED in Iraq. After it was reconstructed, he then redeployed to serve in Afghanistan, where he was injured again. When he got home, he faced a less than honorable discharge after he tested positive for the drug amphetamine. He asked to be retested, saying his many Army prescriptions might be to blame. But his commander refused and instead gave Jensen the maximum punishment, cutting his rank to private, docking his pay and canceling surgery to fix his face so he could spend weeks mopping floors, picking weeds and scrubbing toilets. This is Jensen speaking to The Gazette about how soldiers don’t seem to have the same workers’ compensation rights as everyone else.

JERRALD JENSEN: If you were walking down the stairs with your briefcase in your hand and your—and your stack of papers in your hand, and you tripped on a corner of the rug in your office building and fell down the stairs, would you expect the people that you’ve worked for to pay for your medical bills and take care of you if you weren’t able to come back to work? Why shouldn’t we? The reason why it’s a bigger deal with us is because usually somebody doesn’t jump out of a corner in the stairwell and shoot you with an AK-47 when you’re at work. They expect us to fulfill our contract that we signed when we enlisted. They expect us to follow all orders. They expect us to do what we’re told. They expect us to die, if that’s what happens. So, in that contract, they agree to take care of us, and we agree to serve. They’re not taking—they are not taking care of us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former Army Sergeant Jerrald Jensen, his jaw badly damaged. His story is part of a major investigation published this week by the Colorado Springs Gazette called "Other than Honorable." Top Army officials have so far refused to comment on the series.

For more, we’re going to go to Denver right now to Dave Philipps, the reporter who uncovered the story. He’s also the author of the book Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home. In 2009, he wrote the award-winning two-part series, "Casualties of War."

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dave. Tell us more about Jerrald Jensen and how he fits into this three-part series that you have now just published.

DAVID PHILIPPS: Jerrald Jensen is really like an incredible story I think most civilians would have—it would be impossible for them to imagine. He’s a man who got hit by an IED while driving through downtown Baghdad, and it went right through his head, right in front of the ear, out this other side, and essentially shattered the entire lower part of his face, including his sinuses. He wasn’t supposed to live. He was in a coma for months. Doctors assumed, if he ever came out of it, he’d be brain dead. And the day that he woke up, he got out of bed and was walking around. And after 13 surgeries, he told the doctors, the Army doctors, "Hey, I want to go back and serve my country again. I want to deploy with my old combat unit." And so he did. He went back to Afghanistan, and he went to a really vicious corner of the mountains in the south, right along the Pakistan border. There, he was put in charge of a little mountaintop outpost that took fire from the enemy almost every day. He was injured there again when he was running to a gun post and fell and rebroke his face.

He went back again to the United States, where he was scheduled to have many more surgeries. And he went into a wounded warrior battalion, a special unit in the Army that was created to care for these seriously wounded troops, help them get better, help them transition out of the Army. He said, when he got there, he encountered a hostile environment where soldiers who were struggling with all sorts of issues were written up for the smallest things. He himself was written up for little things like not showing up to 6:00 a.m. formation because he had bad infections in his sinuses.

He was finally—he tested positive for amphetamine. And he said to the Army, "Hey, look, I’m on Sudafed from the Army. Would you retest this? I think it’s a mistake." And this is a man who had had a spotless record before. And the Army said—I wouldn’t believe this if I hadn’t heard a tape of the conversation—his commander of this special medical unit said, "I’m not going to retest that. That’s not our job." Instead, she recommended that he scrub toilets, even though doctors were saying, "This guy is—this guy is too sick to do this type of stuff." And maybe most upsetting of all is, while he was doing all this extra duty, he had been scheduled to have surgery to have dental implants, because he lost all his teeth in these injuries, and the commander, he says, canceled his surgery. And to this day, he has no teeth.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So let’s go back to Jerrald Jensen, here describing his encounters in Fort Carson’s Warrior Transition with sergeants who had never deployed before and who treated the wounded harshly.

JERRALD JENSEN: And the extra duty I was assigned was pulling weeds, picking up cigarette butts, scrubbing toilets, mopping floors, sweeping floors, scrubbing stairs and, you know, cleaning the barracks, things like this. And when I told them, you know, this is violating my profile, it’s making me worse, it’s making my injuries hurt worse—I was having to take more pain medication I was being prescribed by the doctors—I was told to man up. I was told that this wasn’t—they had taken great lengths to determine whether or not my profile said that I could do these things or not, and that they had come to the terms that my profile wasn’t being violated by doing these things. And I asked them, I said, "Well, OK, to pull a weed, what do you have to do? Bend over to pick it up, pull it? Because it says 'no bending' in my profile. And I can’t squat either, because it says 'no squatting.' And I can’t crawl on my hands and knees to do it, because it says 'no crawling.'" And they said, "No, you can do it. Man up. Just do it."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dave Philipps, that was Jerrald Jensen. Can you tell us what happened to him, where he is now, and also how you came across this story initially?

DAVID PHILIPPS: Well, Jerrald Jensen’s unit recommended him for an other than honorable discharge. What that would mean is that even though he has serious medical issues, he would lose all benefits from the VA. Now, he could technically apply and appeal to the VA to try and get those benefits back, but that process can take years and oftentimes is not successful. So, really, they were sort of cutting him off and casting him out.

He is obviously a fighter, a person who is going to get knocked down and get back up again. And so, he decided that he was going to do everything he could to keep that from happening. And what it took was going to generals far above anyone at Fort Carson and saying, "Look what they’re doing to me, after what I did for the country. You have to stop this." And finally, at the last minute, they did, and they medically retired him. But, you know, there’s a lot of people whose wounds aren’t as obvious or who aren’t able to stand up for themselves, where that doesn’t happen. They’re just cast out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how did you come across the story initially?

DAVID PHILIPPS: You know, this all started when we started seeing more and more soldiers in the jail in El Paso County. And I went to see one of them, and the Army had literally pulled him out of a psychiatric hospital against his will and driven him directly to the jail. And I thought to myself, "My god! What are they—what are they doing? What’s going on there?" And so, I started asking around to people that work with veterans closely, and they started connecting me with some of these people who were being thrown out, even though they had multiple tours, even though they had obvious injuries, even though, at least from a civilian point of view, their misconduct was relatively minor, you know, considering their sacrifice. And so, we really wanted to make sure that some of these stories were told.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s turn to another of the veterans you profiled in your series, Kash Alvaro, who talks about how he struggled with PTSD since returning from Afghanistan in 2010, when he was labeled by his Army unit as a malingerer and thrown out for misconduct.

KASH ALVARO: My battle buddies, we’ve seen things. We’ve been through things that—that’s never going to leave your mind, and it’s always going to be there—losing, you know, close friends, people you used to hang out with, people you trained with. They’re not going to be here. And just to come back and have someone tell you, "Oh, oh, you’re just—you’re just acting out. Oh, you’re just—you’re just looking for sympathy," and those people just don’t understand. Not everybody—I mean, if you have a strong heart, that’s good. That’s good. But there’s people in the world that don’t. You know, you lose somebody, and it’ll break you. When you lose 11 people, it’s going to break you. You come over, you deploy with all these people, you expect to go home with all these people. And if—you know, if I make it another year, two years, three years, I’m fine with that. If I make it 'til next week, I'm fine with that, too. See, I just—just want to know—every soldier that puts up with it and fights that battle, that, you know, there’s always going to be—we’ll rest one day.

AMY GOODMAN: That was wounded veteran Kash Alvaro. The Colorado Springs Gazette’s Dave Philipps spoke with him again recently. This time he was in the emergency room in Colorado Springs on April 26 after having a seizure, blurred vision and numbness in his leg. Alvaro said his problems started shortly after he was injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2009.

DAVID PHILIPPS: What happened?

KASH ALVARO: I had numb—numb—numbing and tingling in my leg last—today and yesterday, and I’ve had severe headaches and double vision in my left eye, and haven’t been really able to focus. And my sleep is also—I can’t sleep at night very much, only a couple of hours.

DAVID PHILIPPS: How bad has your vision gotten?

KASH ALVARO: My left eye is completely blurry, and my right eye’s OK. I can see some things with my right eye.

DAVID PHILIPPS: So why did—why did they bring you into the hospital?

KASH ALVARO: Because they were afraid that—that I might have been—have this onset of a stroke.

DAVID PHILIPPS: Any idea what the doctors think?

KASH ALVARO: No, not yet. They gave me a CT scan and drew blood already.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kash Alvaro just a couple weeks ago, on April 26. Dave Philipps, you were at his bedside. Where is he now? How does he fit into this story?

DAVID PHILIPPS: He’s, you know, a really sad case. One of the reasons we thought maybe that the number of discharges were going up—misconduct discharges were going up in the Army was that a lot of these guys might have invisible injuries—you know, PTSD or a traumatic brain injury—that you couldn’t see, and a lot of times even doctors can’t tell, you know, the severity of them. You know, what is misconduct, and what is an injury?

But Alvaro had a documented blast injury. Afterwards, he started suffering regular seizures, headaches, heart spasms. And his unit kicked him out anyway, for minor stuff. They thought he was, quote-unquote, "a dirtbag," a liar, and they didn’t like him. And it didn’t matter that he was seriously injured. They kicked him out. And they kicked him out in a way that kept him from getting benefits for the rest of his life. So, you know, you kick out a 22-year-old kid who is having seizures regularly. He can’t work. He can’t get unemployment. He’s had no family to fall back on. And he’s homeless right now. He’s staying for a little while with a veteran here in Denver who is helping him out, trying to get him some medical care. But he has nothing. He has nothing at all.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask you about an email obtained by The Gazette that shows Fort Carson’s legal advice on kicking out wounded soldiers. It reads, quote, "If you are dealing with these kinds of cases, [we] recommend that you seriously consider preferring charges and offering [Chapter] 10s to get the Soldiers out quickly. ... I think it is time to start teaching these kinds of Soldiers a lesson. Now, you just have to make sure that the offense(s) would qualify for a [Chapter] 10. ... Just because a Soldier is pending court-martial does not necessarily qualify the accused to a [Chapter] 10. It has to be an offense punishable with punitive discharge, plus other limitations." Dave Philipps, can you talk about the significance of Chapter 10, as against Chapter 14, and what it means when soldiers are discharged with a Chapter 10?

DAVID PHILIPPS: Yeah. It’s a lot of Army jargon, but let me cut through it and explain it as simply as I can. Getting kicked out of—most people get kicked out of the Army, if they’re going to get kicked out, for misconduct through something called Chapter 14. And all that means is that the chapter, the regulation, in the Army regulations is number 14. And Congress a few years ago put safeguards in place that say, "Hey, if you’re going to kick someone out through Chapter 14 and you think they might have PTSD or a TBI, there needs to be all sorts of additional evaluation. And if it’s shown that there might be a possibility of connecting the behavior, the misbehavior, with the injury, you can’t kick him out. You’ve got to medically retire them." Well, that’s problematic for an Army unit that wants to kick out a soldier who might have these issues, because it takes a lot of time. It can take months or even over a year, and it might not be successful. So that what they found out is that they could use this back door called Chapter 10.

Chapter 10 is a regulation that says, "Hey, if you have been court-martialed, if you’re facing prison time from the Army, you can volunteer as a soldier to say, 'I will resign from the Army, if you don't prosecute me.’" And it was supposed to be a win-win: The Army doesn’t have to prosecute cases it might not want to; the soldier can get out of a possible trial and going to jail, and they both walk away. The soldier loses his benefits. What they started doing, what this email says is, "Hey, Chapter 10 skips all this medical review, because it’s voluntary. And so, what you should do is take these soldiers that you would normally just kick out and tell them, 'We are going to court-martial you, we're going to put you in jail, unless you sign this Chapter 10.’"

And what we found is, after that email was written, at Fort Carson, the number of Chapter 10s there went up like 300 percent. And Alvaro was one of these. He had only been—he had only done minor misconduct: showing up late, he stole a Blackberry that didn’t belong to him, he went AWOL for a few weeks. But when they got him, they threw him in jail, and they kept him there for a month, and then they said, "Look, if you sign this paper, you’ll get out of jail." And he did. What they didn’t tell him is that he would also lose his benefits for the rest of his life.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s hear from another soldier you interviewed for your "Other than Honorable" series. This is the three-tour Special Forces Sergeant Paul Sasse, who the Army diagnosed with PTSD. He sat in solitary confinement without charge for months after assaulting his wife and two military police officers. You spoke to him while he was in jail, Dave.

PAUL SASSE: I was at the top of my game. You know, I gave everything. And then as soon as—as soon as my PTSD started getting really bad, they just gave up on me. It was—it’s quicker and it’s easier just to kick guys out, and then, you know—and then have the jails get filled up with them. You know, I’ve done three deployments for this country. And this is the thanks I get? I get assualted by guards. I don’t get to even talk to my children? You know, I’m not saying what happened was right, but I don’t know what happened. And I’m trying to get in a treatment program to make sure that never, ever happens again. And the Army is denying me the ability to go to a treatment program.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is three-tour Special Forces Sergeant Paul Sasse. In 2012, he’s diagnosed with PTSD. Doctors give him a mix of contraindicated drugs that make him manic, you report, Dave. And a few weeks later, he slams his wife’s head against their Jeep until she’s covered in blood. Take it from there. And what has happened to him? What has happened to her?

DAVID PHILIPPS: Well, you know, it’s a long time coming, because Paul Sasse was blown up in Iraq and hit by a roadside bomb in 2007. And he was having what we would probably recognize now as classic symptoms of both a brain injury and PTSD. When he came back from that deployment and he went to the doctors asking for help, he said, "You know, I can’t sleep. I’m having nightmares. I can’t sleep. I can’t concentrate." They diagnosed him instead with attention deficit disorder and a sleep disorder, and they gave him ADD medicine during the day, and they gave him sleep medicine to make him sleep at night, and they never addressed the issues. And they just—you know, he kept deploying after that, and things grew worse.

You know, and when they finally did diagnose him with PTSD, they gave him medicines that, you know, government guidelines say shouldn’t be mixed, that are dangerous to mix. A few weeks later, he assaulted his wife, beat her up bad, and beat up the military police that came to stop him. Of course they threw him in jail, right? Where else can you put someone like that? But the people he served with in Iraq, officers at Fort Carson, were saying, "Hey, take this guy out of jail, and put him in an inpatient treatment place. This guy is sick. He shouldn’t sit in jail." Fort Carson didn’t respond. What’s tragic about that is, he sat in jail totally unmedicated, growing even worse, and he assaulted guards in the jail, and so he’s facing charges for that. And if he’s convicted of those, he faces 15 to 48 years in jail for something the Army did.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Right. Dave Philipps, you’ve also pointed out that Department of Defense studies have shown that both brain injuries and PTSD make it far more likely for military members to be discharged. Can you explain what you found out about why that’s the case and if there’s any link between the military’s difficulty in identifying mental illness, in general, which may also have something to do with the increase in the level of suicides?

DAVID PHILIPPS: Yeah. You know, there’s been studies. There’s, you know, numerous studies, both by the Department of the Defense and by civilian researchers, that say people with brain injuries, people with repeated deployments, people with PTSD are much more likely to run into all sorts of trouble, whether it’s a misconduct discharge, or whether it’s divorce, whether it’s substance abuse, whether it’s being arrested in the civilian world. And I don’t think anyone disputes that. Where the Army runs into trouble is, the people that are often trying to make the initial decision of what is misconduct and what is an injury, you know, they’re trained as junior officers meant to lead Army units. They’re not mental health experts. They’re not brain injury experts. And so, it’s really hard. There’s no definitive way to say this is an injury, and this is misconduct. And so, a lot of times, or at least sometimes, we know, people make the wrong decision.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But do these soldiers—are they—do they have some kind of medical examination, or is it just their superiors in the military who examine them and determine whether they have it?

DAVID PHILIPPS: There is a lot of—you know, there is more and more examination of these guys. They get examined when they—right when they come home from deployments, three months after that, six months after that, nine months after that. The staff of behavioral health clinics in the Army has ballooned in the last few years.

But there’s also a backlash to that. Leaders can look at people who go to and use these medical resources as fakers, as people that want to get out of work and go to appointments, as people who are trying to bilk the Army of benefits. That doesn’t always happen, but we’ve seen a number of cases at Fort Carson where the command simply doesn’t believe the doctors that say, "Oh, you know, your soldier has a brain injury, or your soldier has PTSD." And so—

AMY GOODMAN: David—

DAVID PHILIPPS: —they go after them anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, just this issue that you, in sum, find in this remarkable three-part series, more soldiers being discharged for misconduct than at any time in recent history. The feeling you get from this piece: The military sends these guys off to war, men and women, and now doesn’t want to pay for them being taken care of—to do with sequester, to do with downsizing. And no matter how horrific their crimes are, like this guy Sasse beating up his wife, they are then just released into society, if they’re not arrested, and they’re not taken care of at all.

DAVID PHILIPPS: That’s right. You know, first, let me say, if you want to see more photos and video and read these guys’ stories, it’s at gazette.com. But you’re absolutely right. The Army’s difficulty in dealing with this is not an Army problem; it’s a societal problem. We’re talking about over two million people who have deployed in the last 10 years. Over 500,000 of them have more than three deployments. These are people who, you know, may have issues that they need our help with. And if the Army isn’t sort of the first responder, the person that gets them on the right track, and the Army in fact, through its actions, is banning them from care for the rest of their lives, that’s going to affect our society for a really long time. You know, we may be experiencing another thing like we saw with Vietnam vets.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Philipps, we want to thank you for being with us. We will certainly lnk to your series at democracynow.org, investigative reporter who covers military veterans for the Colorado Springs Gazette. His three-part series, published this week, is called "Other than Honorable." He’s also the author of Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Madison, Wisconsin, to talk about Occupy protesters—not just journalists, but protesters being spied on by the government. Our next guest, the editor of The Progressive, is calling for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. Stay with us.

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