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Secretary of the Army: PTSD diagnosis reversals uncommon

By GREG BARNES | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: March 28, 2012

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Preliminary information suggests the Army does not have a systemic problem of doctors reversing soldiers' diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder in an effort to save the country money, Secretary of the Army John McHugh said Tuesday at Fort Bragg.

During a congressional hearing last week, Secretary John McHugh announced that the Army Inspector General's Office is reviewing all Army medical facilities to determine whether reversals of PTSD diagnoses are happening Armywide.

The action follows revelations that psychiatrists at Madigan Army Medical Center reversed 40 percent of the 690 cases in which soldiers facing military retirement had originally been diagnosed with PTSD. Madigan is at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

Reversing PTSD to another finding, such as a personality disorder, could have cost soldiers a significant loss of military retirement benefits. In 2008, Congress authorized a 50 percent disability rating for anyone leaving the service with a PTSD diagnosis.

The Inspector General's Office has been reviewing PTSD practices at all Army medical centers similar to Madigan, including Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg.

"To this point, the preliminary data analysis we are receiving indicates that the problems at Madigan do not appear to be systemic through the entire United States Army," McHugh said during a news conference at Fort Bragg. "But obviously, we want to look at the IG's final report very carefully and take whatever steps may be indicated from its findings."

The Armywide review is separate from an inspection Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, ordered in February for the post's Warrior Transition Battalion. The inspection is supposed to be completed by Sunday, but Helmick said it could take weeks before it becomes public.

That inspection was sparked, at least in part, by a loose-knit group of advocates who were responding to complaints from soldiers in Fort Bragg's battalion for mentally and physically wounded soldiers.

One of those soldiers, Sgt. Jody Lee Piercy, said Monday that he and three others in the battalion were denied access to a meeting with McHugh, even though they were originally told they could attend.

"It was open to anyone who wanted to come," Helmick said. "That complaint has not reached my level."

Helmick said he and other commanders have an open-door policy in which any soldier can come in and voice concerns or complaints.

Piercy and other soldiers say the Warrior Transition Battalion purposely excludes them from meetings with Army brass.

"The soldiers are getting handpicked, and they are picking the ones with no real issues," Piercy said.

McHugh, who arrived at Fort Bragg on Monday morning, said he was there to visit Helmick and Lt. Gen. John Mulholland. He also spent time with wounded soldiers, about two dozen of whom have complained to The Fayetteville Observer about the Warrior Transition Battalion since Helmick called for a review of its processes and procedures.

Those complaints include allegations of overmedication, poor treatment by doctors and those in charge of the battalion, and being kicked out of the Army on trumped-up charges, such as faking injury or illness.

Patrick Bellon, executive director of the advocate group Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., questioned the assertion that problems found at Madigan Army Medical Center are not happening throughout the Army.

"Leading off, trying to say it's isolated, doesn't really pass the common-sense test," Bellon said.

Although PTSD reversals may not be prevalent at Fort Bragg and other Army bases, Bellon said, wounded warrior units at Fort Carson, Colo., and elsewhere have come under fire for their treatment and care of soldiers. He said he is hearing growing complaints about Fort Bragg soldiers being unfairly discharged.

"Clearly," he said, "something is not right."

Responding to related questions from reporters, McHugh acknowledged that repeated deployments have caused stress on soldiers and members of all branches of military service. More than 50,000 troops have deployed four or more times in the past 10 years, he said.

But McHugh said the stresses of war cannot be blamed for "incredibly rare aberrancies," such as the recent slayings of 17 Afghan civilians. A Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier, Sgt. Robert Bales, has been charged in those deaths. Bales' lawyers have suggested that his mental health could play a role in his defense.

"As tragic as they are, they don't reflect either the mental health, or, I think, the incredible sacrifices and achievements of our troops," McHugh said. "We continue to stay focused on making sure that we have the right behavioral health programs.

"We are looking very closely, obviously, at the causes but also the treatment of PTSD and other related incidences. But we are not making a connection between those challenges and the acts that obviously have received so much attention."

Force reductions

On another topic, McHugh said Army commanders are working on the assumption that they will have a significantly smaller force - 490,000 active-duty troops by fiscal 2017. McHugh expects the cuts to come largely through attrition and normal turnover, but he said some soldiers may soon be looking for new jobs.

"That is painful for all of us, but it really is, I think, a logical step," he said. "Just being good enough is no longer going to be good enough ... So I think it behooves every man and woman in the United States Army; they are going to have to strive to work harder to achieve greater and higher levels. And if they can do that, we will be proud to keep them on."

McHugh said the Army anticipates two more rounds of base closings, in 2013 and 2015. He said base closures require congressional approval, and he could not project what might happen to Fort Bragg.

But he stressed that the base came out well during the last Base Realignment and Closure Act in 2005, and he anticipates that happening again.
 

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