The Shafting Of Our Career Soldiers: Continues Unabated

This is a follow-up to my previous postings: “The Short-Changing Of Our Citizen Soldiers,” and “The Shafting Of Our Career Soldiers“.

I was outraged when I wrote the previous postings and my outrage continued when I read the article “Specialist Town Takes His Case to Washington” by Joshua Kors in the October 15 issue of The Nation.

To briefly recap the story about Specialist Jon Town, and the other patriots in our military services that are in the same predicament:

Soldiers who passed all of the rigorous medical and psychological screening prior to induction in to the Army, who had no previous history of any psychological problems, or what the Army would term “personality disorder”, were accepted in to the United States Army, trained and deployed to the theater of war in Iraq. These soldiers subsequently become casualties, suffering traumatic injuries to their bodies, including their limbs, external musculature, internal organs and to their brains. Injuries manifest in the physical scarring, and partial physical dysfunction or disintegration of their bodies and in the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that they chronically suffer. They return to the safety of our home shores and to the care of the Army Medical Corps with the expectation that in exchange for their service and sacrifices that they will receive the best medical, and rehabilitative care available in the most technologically and economically advantaged nation in the world. Instead, they are mis-categorized in a seeming widespread institutional standard operating procedure, as having “personality disorder”, and thus are ineligible for benefits, and are “kicked to the curb” by the United States Army, with no further medical care, no rehabilitation, no partial or total disability benefits. Just used, abused and thrown away.

That was the story earlier this year, before Kors and The Nation and the wider media at large picked it up. Subsequently Jon Town was invited to testify before Congress, and as described in Kors’ most recent story, while Town himself has finally been the beneficiary of the publicity surrounding his case, as reported by Kors (and no thanks to the U.S. Army, but rather the Department of Veterans Affairs):

Strangely enough, Town’s big break came not from Matthews, NBC or even Senator Bond but from Lou Wilin, a reporter at the Findlay Courier, Town’s hometown paper (circulation 23,000). After reading Town’s story in The Nation, Wilin wrote a profile of the soldier, which ran in the newspaper’s April 16 edition. The article caught the eye of an admiral in the VA who happens to live a few miles east of Findlay. The admiral flagged Town’s case, kicked it to the Cleveland VA, which passed it to the Dayton VA, where case manager Janine Wert was ready to take action. Wert received Town’s case the morning of April 19 and had the soldier in her office before the end of lunch. She listened to his story and cried.

“His childhood, high school and military history–none of it supports a personality disorder. When you’re a teenager, there are certain things that pop up that are vividly obvious, red flags for personality disorder. Those aren’t present in Jon’s history,” says Wert, a social worker with a master’s degree in mental health. Wert says Town’s PTSD and TBI symptoms were obvious from their first meeting. She was struck by the absurdity of the Army’s diagnosis. “I have never in my life heard of personality disorder causing deafness,” says the counselor.

Wert arranged an immediate doctor’s appointment for Town and scheduled an evaluation by a VA medical board. On June 11 the VA ruled that Town was in fact wounded in combat. The agency declared him 100 percent disabled.

Town’s VA rating guaranteed him disability and medical benefits for the rest of his life. The VA also provided the disability pay that Town should have received in the months following his discharge. On June 25, just weeks after his family’s phone had been shut off, the specialist received a check for $20,000.

There may still be as many as 22,000 other soldiers in the same predicament as Town was. Put in their predicament by the United States Army, and then swept under the carpet as outlined by Kors:

Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, acting surgeon general of the Army, was briefed on the problems with the Army’s personality disorder discharges. Instead of correcting cases like Town’s, she buried them. The surgeon general released a series of memos filled with fabrications. Pollock then informed wounded soldiers that their cases had been thoroughly reviewed by an independent panel of health experts when in fact no such review was conducted…

Andrew Pogany, an investigator for the soldiers’ rights group Veterans for America, has been looking into personality disorder discharges for two years. The discharge, officially known as Regulation 635-200, Chapter 5-13, is simply a loophole, he says, to dismiss wounded soldiers without providing them benefits. Pogany says Town’s case is a textbook example of how Chapter 5-13 is being applied. Town had no history of psychological problems and had served seven years, winning a dozen medals, before being discharged with a personality disorder.

The investigator was so disturbed by the Army’s use of 5-13 discharges that he brought his research to Pollock. In late October 2006, he and Steve Robinson, Veterans for America’s director of veterans affairs, met with Pollock and presented her with a stack of personality disorder cases, including Town’s. The surgeon general promised a thorough review.

On March 23, five months after her meeting with Pogany, Pollock released her findings. Her office had “thoughtfully and thoroughly” reviewed the personality disorder cases and determined that all of the soldiers, including Town, had been properly diagnosed. Pollock commended the doctors who diagnosed personality disorder for their excellent work.

Four days later the military followed up with a press release, this one signed by Lieut. Col. Bob Tallman, the Army’s chief of public affairs. Tallman’s memo provided further detail on Pollock’s review. A panel of behavioral health experts had reviewed the personality disorder cases, Tallman wrote, and they didn’t stop at the stack of cases presented to the surgeon general. They “thoroughly evaluated and reviewed” all the Chapter 5-13s from the past four years at Fort Carson, where Specialist Town had been based, and determined that all of those cases had been properly diagnosed as well.

There was a glaring problem with Pollock’s review. In the five months she spent “thoughtfully and thoroughly” reviewing the cases, her office did not interview anyone, not even the soldiers whose cases they were reviewing.

Asked how he could call the surgeon general’s review “thorough” when no soldiers were interviewed, Tallman said he could not. “Let me be honest with you,” he said. “I know nothing about this memo and little to nothing about the review.” Tallman said the memo bearing his name was actually ghostwritten by Pollock’s office. The lieutenant colonel added that as far as he knew, Pollock conducted no review at all.

Pollock’s office quickly admitted that it had ghostwritten the Tallman memo but assured veterans’ groups that the surgeon general had indeed conducted a review. In an e-mail Pollock’s chief spokeswoman, Cynthia Vaughan, explained that the surgeon general did not want to interview soldiers because she felt they had no medically valid information to share. “Calling a soldier who underwent a 5-13 Chapter in 2003 and asking him (in 2007) to recall his mental condition in 2003 does not hold medical validity,” Vaughan wrote…

The surgeon general tried to quell veterans’ groups by emphasizing that, as stated in the March memos, the comprehensive review was conducted by a panel of health experts and that those experts “did not provide the initial evaluations.” This wasn’t a case of one doctor reviewing his own work, the surgeon general said.

Both of those assurances crumbled on May 4, when Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy revealed that in fact there was only one reviewer: Col. Steven Knorr. Knorr was a strange choice to be the sole reviewer. He was far from an objective observer. As chief of Fort Carson’s Behavioral Health unit, Knorr had overseen all the original diagnoses and, in his capacity as a psychiatrist, also diagnosed several soldiers with personality disorder.

Months earlier Knorr had spoken out in defense of the Army’s practice of not interviewing soldiers’ family or friends before labeling their condition “pre-existing.” Unlike his staff, he said, family members are not trained to recognize signs of personality disorder, so speaking to them would be of limited value. “The soldier’s perception and their parents’ perception is that they were fine. But maybe they didn’t or weren’t able to see that wasn’t the case…”

In the same interview, published in The Nation, Knorr said there was a simple reason why in so many cases the lifelong condition of personality disorder isn’t apparent until after troops serve in Iraq. Traumatic experiences, he said, can trigger a condition that has lain dormant for years. “[Troops] may have done fine in high school and before, but it comes out during the stress of service,” he said. Knorr’s assertion was a sharp break from the accepted medical understanding of personality disorder and provoked a flood of angry letters from psychiatrists and veterans’ leaders.

Veterans were further agitated by a vivid profile of Knorr, by NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling broadcast in late May. Zwerdling details a memo written by Knorr in which he advises his doctors that trying to save every soldier is a “mistake.” “We can’t fix every Soldier,” the memo states. “We have to hold Soldiers accountable for their behavior. Everyone in life beyond babies, the insane, and the demented and mentally retarded have to be held accountable for what they do in life.”

Knorr’s memo, which he posted on his office’s bulletin board, warns his doctors not to take soldiers’ descriptions of their ailments at face value. “We’re not naïve, and shouldn’t automatically believe everything Soldiers tell us,” the colonel writes. Knorr also urges his doctors to discharge troubled soldiers quickly–as he puts it, “Get rid of dead wood.”

If I understand what I have read, and it is accurate, then as an institution the United States Army Medical Corps has ignored all of the pre-qualifying screening that was conducted upon military recruits prior to induction, it has ignored the anecdotal reports coming from these soldiers, ignored the symptoms displayed by those same former recruits, subsequent to their deployment and experiences in the war zone in Iraq, ignored any available pre-induction history from family and associates of the former recruits, and ignored the prevailing findings and opinions of the medical profession as a whole, so that the Army Medical Corps and the Army as a whole, can just use, abuse and then wash their hands of any further responsibility for those patriotic sons and daughters of America, and those willing non-American citizens who have all volunteered to serve the United States.

I have been stewing over this since the last article by Joshua Kors appeared in The Nation, feeling anger, and disgust with our government and its institutions, and trying to think what I and other Americans who are outraged about this situation might be able to do to help turn things around for our wounded military personnel. I recently contacted Joshua Kors, and asked him if he had seen any progress with this issue since his last article was published in The Nation a month ago. Kors told me:

Not much in the power structure has changed since my articles. Nobody has yet to be held responsible, and the pre-existing Personality Disorder discharge system is still fully in place. That goes not only for soldiers who came back with psychological wounds, like PTSD, but also physical wounds, like the deafness and leg injuries discussed in my series.

Somehow, the fact that nothing has changed between Kors’ first article and the intervening time after his second article is not surprising. Maybe it should also not be surprising that the situation for our soliders may be even worse. On November 15, Jason Knobloch, reporting via the Veterans For America web site wrote:

In today’s news, a soldier who had gone AWOL from Fort Drum, NY, because he wasn’t getting adequate treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was apprehended as his lawyer was negotiating his surrender to Army authorities. According to the report, Sgt. Brad Gaskins’ mental health began to deteriorate during his second tour in Iraq after he saw an improvised explosive device (IED) slaughter a family of four, and it only got worse from there. When he returned, he was diagnosed with PTSD in an outside facility, treated, and then returned to his unit. When he got back, the trouble began again, and when Gaskin asked to receive more treatment at the same hospital, he was told more time off would jeopardize his chances of receiving a medical release, and later almost stabbed his wife, after which he went AWOL. Fort Drum’s mental health facility currently has a staff of 31, with plans to add seventeen more, to serve 17,000 soldiers.

Also on November 15, AFP (Agence France-Presse) reported:

The US military is experiencing a “suicide epidemic” with veterans killing themselves at the rate of 120 a week, according to an investigation by US television network CBS.

At least 6,256 US veterans committed suicide in 2005 — an average of 17 a day — the network reported, with veterans overall more than twice as likely to take their own lives as the rest of the general population.

While the suicide rate among the general population was 8.9 per 100,000, the level among veterans was between 18.7 and 20.8 per 100,000.

That figure rose to 22.9 to 31.9 suicides per 100,000 among veterans aged 20 to 24 — almost four times the non-veteran average for the age group.

It seems that the Army is doing too little, and too late. It seems that a major obstacle to turning this situation around is General Pollock, the army’s Acting Surgeon General, who may have forgotten her original medical training and lost any compassion she might have once had as she became a professional military bureaucrat. It seems this is what happens when a renegade administration, thinks that it can build an empire in the name of “democracy” by waging a phony war “on the cheap”, when in fact, it has become quite an expensive war in terms of selling billions of dollars of U.S. Treasury securities to foreign governments (as of September 2007 mainland China held $396.7 billion in U.S. Treasury securities) and then turns around and disburses much of those borrowed funds to its partners in the private sector. Helping those private sector businesses leverage massive profits off the backs of current and future tax payers as they pursue the Bushliburton administration’s Disaster Capitalism agenda (as laid out by Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine-The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism”).

The current treatment, or lack of appropriate treatment by the United States Army Medical Corps and the army as an institution of our government, toward the men and women in service to our people, is not acceptable to this veteran, and should not be acceptable to any veteran or any American citizens for that matter.

-Big Fella

(Coming In The Next Posting: What We All Can Do To Change This)

Added 30-Nov-2007: Please visit my advocacy site: FIGHT-PTSD.ORG.

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2 Responses to The Shafting Of Our Career Soldiers: Continues Unabated

  1. Pingback: BFD Blog! » The Shafting Of Our Soldiers: Time To Take Action

  2. Pingback: Advocacy From The Ground Up: Military Spouses for Change | BFD Blog!

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