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Critics: Fort Carson policy targeted troubled, wounded soldiers

FORT CARSON, Colo. — Army Cpl. Joshua Smith saw the orange glow against the South Carolina night sky long before he reached his sister’s apartment complex. The fire in the back buildings was intense. People stood in shock, watching the blaze.

Smith leapt from his rental car and vaulted a five-foot brick wall, yelling at onlookers to call for help. He grabbed an exercise weight someone had left in the yard, threw it through a sliding glass door and burst into the burning building. He shepherded a mother and her 16-month-old daughter to safety, then turned his attention to the other apartments, kicking down doors, running room to room, making sure no one else was trapped. By the time he emerged, firefighters had arrived. The local TV news hailed the 22-year-old infantryman — home on leave after a tour in Iraq before transferring to Fort Carson, Colo. — whose quick action saved lives.

“It was easy,” Smith said later. “Nobody was shooting at me.”

Sixteen months later, in November 2010, the acting commander at Fort Carson, Brig. Gen. James H. Doty, pinned the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for noncombat heroism, to Smith’s chest. It was the young soldier’s second valor medal in three years in the military, after an Army Commendation Medal with valor device that he’d been awarded for his combat service.

For all his heroics, however, Smith’s life was falling apart.

He was headed for a medical discharge he didn’t really want, due to knee and back injuries. He was in a disastrous marriage, drinking too much, trying to hide the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Fort Carson doctors checked him into a mental health facility for several days in January. Then, just three months after the Soldier’s Medal ceremony, Smith came up positive for cocaine use in a random drug test.

The usual course of action in the Army is to punish soldiers who test positive for drugs locally and to begin a process that can — but doesn’t always — lead to an administrative discharge from the military. At Fort Carson, military lawyers had devised a different plan to quickly get rid of wounded soldiers who got in trouble. Smith’s commanders in the rear detachment of the 2-8 Infantry Regiment, who hadn’t served with him in Iraq, took steps to court-martial him. The criminal charge they levied against him, use of a controlled substance, carried the possibility of jail time, a punitive discharge and a civilian felony record.

Smith and his defense lawyers were shocked. Then the prosecutors offered him a quick way out: If he would request an immediate discharge under a legal procedure known as a Chapter 10 — without his medical review, military medical care and potential medical retirement pay or disability severance pay — they would recommend that Doty approve it.

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The prosecutors even offered to recommend that Smith receive an honorable discharge (albeit one marked on his paperwork as “in lieu of court-martial”), an almost unheard-of outcome. Chapter 10 discharges are almost always characterized as “other-than-honorable.”

With his lawyers’ encouragement, Smith took the deal. On May 31, the same general who had commended Smith at the ceremony ended his career over a single act of misconduct.

Three days later, Smith was a civilian — nearly penniless, suffering and alone. He’s moved three times in the five months since then, mostly staying with family and friends.

“I’ve been sleeping on couches since I got out,” Smith said in an interview. “Technically, I’m homeless.”

‘These kinds of cases’

Civilian defense lawyers and advocates for troops say stories like Smith’s have become increasingly common at Fort Carson. The trend has its genesis in an email that the top military prosecutor on post sent to nearly two dozen colleagues in August 2009 in which he bemoaned how hard it could be to kick wounded or sick soldiers out of the Army for misconduct.

“How frustrating it is,” Maj. Javier Rivera wrote, when a soldier undergoing the Army’s formal medical review process used drugs or committed other misconduct. Army regulations required the medical case to be complete before the soldier could be discharged, a process that often took many months. Meanwhile, Rivera wrote, “the Soldier continues to do whatever he wants and believes himself untouchable.”

But, Rivera wrote, he and the deputy staff judge advocate, Lt. Col. Steven P. Haight, had a solution. If soldiers pending medical review were accused of using drugs, commanders and prosecutors should skip the regular administrative proceedings and court-martial them instead.

“If you are dealing with these kinds of cases, our DSJA recommends that you seriously consider preferring charges and offering CH 10s to get the Soldiers out quickly. I concur,” Rivera wrote on Aug. 14, 2009. “I think that is a reasonable remedy that not too many [prosecutors] and Commanders are aware of. I think it is time to start teaching these kinds of Soldiers a lesson.”

Rivera, who is still assigned to Fort Carson in a different job, did not reply to emailed requests for comment.

One year later, the commanding general at Fort Carson, Maj. Gen. David Perkins, deployed to Iraq, taking the top Fort Carson military lawyer with him. Doty, a one-star reservist, took over as the acting commander. Haight became the Fort Carson staff judge advocate.

Critics charge that Haight and Rivera’s strategy soon became the post’s unofficial policy, and that leaders used the system to get wounded, troubled soldiers out of the Army fast.

Some soldiers were charged criminally, as Rivera’s email suggested, in the hope that they would request a quick discharge instead. Others went through the medical review process, but Doty separated them with less-desirable discharges that short-circuited their benefits.

The result is that soldiers who had no history of trouble before they went to war ended up without access to benefits and programs that the government uses as recruiting tools.

Most of the soldiers affected received general or other-than-honorable discharges. In most cases, that means they cannot use the GI Bill to pay for college. They might also have to repay enlistment bonuses, and they lose military medical care and retirement pay.

While wounded veterans with less desirable discharges can go to the Department of Veterans Affairs and apply for disability benefits, it’s not that simple. The VA has a huge backlog of disability claims and veterans often wait many months before their cases are heard. Moreover, participating in the VA process requires that a veteran be geographically stable and have transportation to get to VA appointments. Abrupt dismissals and lack of income can make that almost impossible.

Haight, who left Fort Carson for a new assignment in September, agreed that it is rare in the Army to charge a soldier criminally for one-time drug use, except perhaps for pilots, surgeons or others with highly technical jobs.

He said he believed that the Fort Carson soldiers who had been charged for one-time use had probably failed multiple drug tests. That was not true in Smith’s case, according to documents in his official files.

‘This pattern ... is so clear'

With soldiers coming home broken in record numbers, the Army has pledged to take care of their physical and mental wounds. The quick-separation policy at Fort Carson stands in direct conflict with that pledge.

The Army touts a zero-tolerance policy for drug use, but commanders have considerable discretion regarding how much punishment soldiers receive and whether they ultimately are retained or discharged.

Moreover, defense lawyers and veterans advocates point to many cases in which soldiers who tested positive for use of drugs once, or occasionally even twice or more — but who were not facing a possible medical discharge — have been retained on active duty.

Just last month, the vice chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, talked about the link between PTSD and traumatic brain injury on the one hand, and substance abuse and suicide on the other.

“The interrelation of these two things is something I’m very, very concerned about,” Chiarelli told military leaders at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition. “We will define our readiness in the Army by how we handle soldiers who are having these kinds of problems. We must ensure that we take care of our people and that we take care of one another. And I charge all of you with doing that.”

For soldiers with PTSD and related medical issues who tested positive for drug use at Fort Carson in at least 10 recent cases that Stars and Stripes identified, there was no apparent compassion.

“It’s insane what they’re doing. It’s criminal,” said Robert Alvarez, a veterans advocate in Colorado Springs who formerly worked as a counselor at Fort Carson. “They’re taking kids that are wounded from war with alcohol problems or a drug problem. Somebody who is a stellar soldier — or even a marginal one, but who deployed — they’re looking at a chapter.”

A former JAG officer at Fort Carson who now represents soldiers as a civilian lawyer agreed.

“This pattern of discharges is so clear that I can only conclude that commanders are using the system against injured combat veterans who have engaged in minor misconduct by cutting off their hard-earned and much-needed medical and financial benefits,” said Stephen P. Karns, who represents several affected soldiers. “This is a shameful practice.”

The policy at Fort Carson comes as the Army has announced plans to cut 50,000 soldiers by 2017, and critics point out that dismissing soldiers saves on military medical care and retirement pay.

In one Fort Carson case identified by Stars and Stripes, a colonel advised Doty in writing that administratively discharging a soldier risked a “high potential for negative press and political backlash,” but that allowing him to be medically retired and receive his military benefits would increase the “cost to the Army (50% pay for PVT=$734.40 per month).”

“This guy’s cleaning house,” Sheilagh A. McAteer, a deputy state public defender in Colorado Springs who has represented many Fort Carson soldiers involved in civilian criminal cases, said of Doty. “If you’re not deployable, you’re taking up space.”

'A definite connection'

When Doty took over during summer 2010, it was an unusual arrangement. Unlike the wounded soldiers whose cases he ultimately decided, he has never been to war. Doty’s official biography indicates he worked as an Army civilian employee while building his reserve military career. His most recent position was director of planning for the Installation Management Command.

“What I’m here to do is make sure that the main mission of the post — to train and deploy ready soldiers — is carried out,” Doty told The Gazette, a Colorado Springs newspaper, in a February interview.

He emphasized that he had full authority.

“If I have to run to [Perkins] for routine decisions, then I wouldn’t be doing my job,” the newspaper quoted him saying

Perkins returned from Iraq in October.

Asked to comment about the discharge process, the public affairs office at Fort Carson scheduled a 15-minute telephone interview with Doty, but canceled it at the last minute. The staff later offered a written statement and answered some questions via email.

In the statement, Fort Carson officials denied that soldiers in the medical evaluation process were treated differently than able-bodied troops.

Officials said the percentage of soldiers administratively discharged despite being in the medical evaluation process “almost exactly mirrors the percentage of the total Fort Carson population who have been administratively discharged” without being in the medical process. The officials did not provide the numbers behind that calculation except to say that there were “dozens” of cases while Doty was acting commanding general.

“More than 97 percent of our Soldiers uphold Army values and serve professionally every day,” the Fort Carson statement said. “An extremely small minority chooses to break moral, legal and ethical standards of personal conduct, which runs counter to Army values and ultimately harms the Soldiers who serve professionally.”

Separately, Haight, who is now assigned as a fellow in the office of the Director of National Intelligence in Virginia, acknowledged that PTSD could be a complicating factor for some soldiers.

“The tough calls are where the person truly has PTSD and they self-medicate,” he said, adding that commanders had to rely on doctors to provide answers.

“The vast majority, at least within my career [say] … ‘No, PTSD isn’t going to cause you to go out and try illegal drugs.’ You still have your free agency, your willpower.”

Medical experts interviewed by Stars and Stripes emphasize that while correlation is easier to prove than causation, there is no doubt that patients with PTSD are at higher risk for substance abuse than others, including alcohol and illegal drugs — a trend that holds true especially among younger veterans.

“There is a definite connection between them,” said Lisa M. Najavits, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University and the author of “Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse.”

Suggesting that PTSD cannot cause drug use, she said “is a bit like saying depression is not going to cause you to go out and commit suicide," Najavits said. "In our current medical understanding, both PTSD and substance use disorders (SUD) are illnesses … and need to be understood as medical conditions.”

Other than honorable

Sgt. Daryl Williams had been a soldier you could count on during his three tours as an infantryman and scout-sniper in Iraq, right up until he was shot and blown up in July 2008.

Williams filled in for another solider that day, leading about a dozen troops from 1st Battalion, 1-68 Armor Regiment on a combat patrol. When he got out of his armored vehicle and approached an Iraqi Army checkpoint, an improvised explosive device detonated and insurgents opened fire.

“My body armor saved me,” Williams recalled, but shrapnel tore up his neck, arms and buttocks. “My median nerve was severed. My femur was fractured and I had multiple shrapnel wounds.”

Williams, 29 at the time, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. When he awoke in a hospital bed, the first thing he did was to ask to re-enlist.

“I’d been in my unit a long time and I was a leader,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to look like I was giving up.”

But like Smith, when Williams reached Fort Carson, things fell apart. He was dealing with physical pain and mental anguish, his medical records show — PTSD, TBI and his other injuries — and going through the medical evaluation process to determine whether he could stay in the Army.

He was drinking massive amounts of alcohol, he said, and in June 2010, a random urinalysis revealed he’d used cocaine.

Williams quickly admitted as much. He’d been so drunk, he said, that he’d used cocaine despite having been warned that he’d likely have to take a drug test the following week.

“I’d never done any drugs or anything until after I deployed,” said Williams, who is one of Karns’ clients. “Never drank, never did drugs. I lived a really sheltered life. My family was Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

For more than a year, it looked like Williams would take his punishment, get a medical retirement and leave the Army.

He was demoted to specialist, did 45 days of extra duty and forfeited $1,146 per month for two months. His records reflect that his commanders initiated the required administrative separation process against him, but they didn’t push it for 14 months.

Meanwhile, Williams’ medical evaluation board process continued. He stayed sober and passed several drug tests. In July, the board recommended that he be medically retired for PTSD.

But then, in September, his company commander called him into his office. Instead of letting his medical retirement proceed, the Army was going to refer him for separation with an other-than-honorable discharge, ending his chances for retirement pay and disqualifying him from most veterans benefits.

Because of his longevity in the Army — he enlisted in 2002 — Williams is entitled to a hearing before a board of soldiers who could overturn that decision before it ever gets to the commanding general.

The hearing has yet to be scheduled, but if the Army gets its way, he’ll wind up with the same discharge as soldiers who commit much more serious acts of misconduct.

For example, on June 3, Doty approved an other-than-honorable discharge for a soldier who had never deployed and who was facing civilian criminal charges for allegedly driving the getaway car in a robbery and attempted murder.

'Hanging by a thread'

Andrew Trotto was one of the youngest and lowest-ranking soldiers in his company in Iraq. He enlisted in the Army Reserve at 17, switched to active-duty the following year, trained as a tanker and arrived in Sadr City with 1-68 Combined Arms Battalion in February 2008.

The young soldier saw plenty of combat over about a three-month period. But after Trotto hurt his back in an accident away from the fighting, he was evacuated to Kuwait for treatment.

There, Trotto said, he became depressed and suicidal, signature symptoms of PTSD. When the Army sent him back to Iraq his parents got involved, unsatisfied with his medical treatment. They contacted his commanders in the middle of the war zone and filed an inspector general complaint. Trotto spent the second half of his deployment on a U.S. military base in Taji, no longer going out on patrols and missions.

Back at Fort Carson in January 2009, Trotto was assigned to its Warrior Transition Unit. Diagnosed with PTSD and other injuries, Trotto said the 20 or so pills he took every day “made me a zombie.”

Eventually, he said he tried marijuana after another wounded soldier suggested that it would treat his PTSD without the side effects.

“I slept for the first time in like a week,” he said, and his symptoms abated.

Trotto grew the drug in a garden in his apartment, and while it helped his symptoms, he was far from out of the woods. He and his wife separated, and he grew more depressed and angry. He tried to kill himself by taking pills. When he awoke in the hospital, he learned that his sergeants had searched his house, found his marijuana and called the local police.

Still on active-duty, Trotto was sent to a civilian hospital with a program for soldiers suffering from PTSD. He spent more than five months there over the next year before coming up positive for marijuana in a drug test in December 2010.

Commanders in the WTU punished him with demotion, forfeiture of pay and extra duties and began administrative separation proceedings.

The head of the Fort Carson Medical Department Activity, Col. Jimmie Keenan, wrote to Doty advising that he should allow Trotto’s medical disability case to go forward, although she acknowledged that doing so would likely cost the Army $734.40 a month in retirement pay. But Trotto’s commanders wrote to Doty that they did not believe his marijuana use had anything to do with PTSD.

On April 27, Doty went with the commanders’ recommendations, and against Keenan’s advice. He approved Trotto’s separation with a general (under honorable conditions) discharge, which meant he received no medical retirement pay or transition help.

He was on his own.

While staying at his mother’s home in Pennsylvania last summer, he said he planned to live with his father in California — which, he pointed out, is a medical marijuana state. His wife was still in Colorado, their marriage “hanging by a thread,” he said.

“I got injured. I got my benefits taken from me. I got my schooling taken from me. I have no money coming in,” Trotto said. “I couldn’t afford my house. I could barely afford my dog.”

First time in trouble

Soft-spoken, polite and still missing a front tooth that he lost in an accident during basic training in early 2009, former Spc. Joseph Allen was serving in Afghanistan with the 32nd Transportation Co. as a truck driver — an “88-Mike” in Army parlance — when Rivera wrote the email about getting wounded, troubled out quickly.

His job there was to haul supplies — everything from soldiers’ personal gear to ammunition — to remote combat outposts. He often came under fire.

He was in his barracks when it suffered a direct hit from a Taliban rocket in September 2009.

“It goes through my sergeant’s room and instantly kills him,” Allen recalled. “It felt like a giant just swatted us into the wall.”

Allen and his roommate were knocked out. When they came to, they had to dig through the wreckage of the room to escape.

“It didn’t set in until 15 minutes after the attack, but I had severe spinal bruising and a severe concussion,” Allen said. “We were so lucky. So lucky.”

Awarded a Purple Heart, Allen was again running missions just a few days after the attack. When he came home, however, his wife Claire noticed immediately that something was wrong. Allen couldn’t remember things. He was edgy and irritable. He was drinking heavily.

“I’d been having a lot of PTSD problems and stuff, so I wasn’t being, like, the best soldier I could be,” Allen recalled.

In January, Allen came up positive for marijuana. His commanders demoted him to private, took half his pay for two months and made him do 45 days of extra duty.

On the 45th day, he came home to his wife in their off-post apartment. Claire, 26, had exciting news: She was pregnant. The next day, his commanders told him they were going to kick him out of the Army.

His case was referred to Doty in April, and Allen was quickly out with a general discharge.

“What’s going to become of my [medical] appointments?” Allen said he asked his company commander when he heard the news. He said he had a neurology appointment scheduled for May 25. “What about my Purple Heart and my benefits?”

“Try the VA,” Allen said the captain told him.

Allen and his pregnant wife were in real trouble. They were broke, and their military health insurance ran out. Allen said he never received another dime from the military. His last paycheck was held to repay what he said were questionable debts. Where was the commitment from the Army to heal its wounded, he wondered.

After months of barely scraping by with Claire’s income as a pet groomer and help from others, the Allens packed their things into a 14-year-old Toyota and drove back to their native Massachusetts.

Their daughter, whom they’ve already named Taegan, is due in January. They’ve been staying with relatives while Allen looks for a job, and hope to get vouchers for public housing.

“First time I was ever in trouble,” Allen said. “I’m a Purple Heart veteran and I freaking got kicked out. The only thing I got out of the Army was a backpack, a brain injury and a pen. And I already lost the pen.”

murphyjrb@stripes.osd.mil  
Twitter:@billmurphyjr

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