Pulitzer-winning series used as tool to lobby for change
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After a combat tour in Iraq, Kris Goldsmith was discharged from the Army in 2007 for attempting suicide.
His superiors wrote him up for malingering and not being on a plane to his second combat deployment — a flight he missed because he was locked in an Army hospital psychiatric ward. He was given a general discharge that stripped him of some veterans benefits.
"They kicked me out as quickly as they could," he said when reached Thursday at his house in New York. "And ever since, I've struggled. I can't get a real job because my discharge papers say I committed a serious offense."
Other than honorable: The Gazette's Pulitzer Prize winning special report
Once out of the Army, Goldsmith decided he would do whatever he could to keep the same thing from happening to other troops. This year, with other veterans, he started knocking on doors on Capitol Hill.
In his efforts to lobby for change, one of his most valuable tools, he said, was The Gazette's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Other than Honorable" series, published in 2013, which examined the growing trend in misconduct discharges among combat troops.
"Everyone on The Hill had read that series; they all knew the issue because of it. The Gazette built the foundation for us to stand on. We made it personal," he said. "I am not exaggerating when I say that reporting saved lives."
In the past few weeks, Goldsmith and other veterans working with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America spurred the Senate to introduce legislation to help ensure troops with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder are not wrongfully discharged and stripped of benefits.
The Military Mental Health Review Board Improvement Act and The Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans Act were introduced in March by Montana Sen. John Walsh, the first Iraq War combat veteran to serve in the Senate. The bills include provisions designed to help veterans, including extending free health services for combat-related issues from five to 15 years, adding a mental health professional to the military review boards that rule on appeals by troops who have been discharged under less-than-honorable conditions and creating a process to review discharges for troops who were injured and then forced out of the Army for other reasons, such as personality disorder diagnoses or minor misconduct.
"Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there," Walsh said in a statement when he introduced the bill in late March. "And yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives. It is our duty to come together for real solutions for our heroes."
In May, The Gazette published the three-day "Other Than Honorable" series, showing that misconduct discharges were up more than 25 percent Army-wide since 2009, mirroring the rise in wounded, and that, all told, more than 76,000 soldiers had been kicked out of the Army since 2006. An unknown number had PTSD or TBI, most of them stripped of VA benefits. The series was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting on Monday.
In reaction to The Gazette's series, Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado introduced legislation in June creating hearings on wrongful discharges, and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado introduced legislation in October that would have created a Government Accountability Office investigation of the issue. Both amendments were later killed.
"Nobody is more frustrated than me with what happened, and we will continue to push it to get it done," Bennet said this week.
Coffman could not be reached for comment.
Goldsmith, who now attends community college, found The Gazette series online last fall.
"I couldn't believe it. When you are thrown out like I was, you feel so alone," he said. "Everyone out there feels like they are the only one, and I suddenly realized there were thousands of veterans falling through the cracks."
He decided he would work to help his fellow service members. He contacted The Gazette in November, asking to use Army data obtained by the newspaper. He began crafting letters to Congress. In January and again in March, he visited the staff of 30 senators and representatives. Along with other IAVA veterans, as part of a lobbying push called "Storm the Hill," he pressed lawmakers to do something to address the thousands of troops discharged with no care and the rising number of veterans suicides, which, on average, claim 22 veterans per day.
On Tuesday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York announced she would co-sponsor the Military Mental Health Review Board Improvement Act, saying she was prompted by Goldsmith.
"The men and women of our military risk their lives to protect our county, and we need to ensure they receive the care they earned and deserve," she said in a statement.
The bills need sponsors in the House of Representatives. Goldsmith said he has contacted Coffman, also an Iraq War veteran.
Goldsmith said that if the bills pass, they could make a real difference to thousands of wrongfully discharged troops with PTSD or TBI.
"It is not going to solve the problem of wrongful discharges," he said. "But it will at least make sure there is a doctor who is trained in the mental health field there to vote on these discharges."