To: 2016 Edward R. Murrow Awards Committee

From: Daniel Zwerdling, Correspondent, NPR and

           Michael de Yoanna, Reporter-producer, Colorado Public Radio

With

          Robert Little, Senior editor for Investigations, NPR

          Kelley Griffin, Vice President, News, Colorado Public Radio

          Sadie Babits, News Director, Colorado Public Radio

          Barbara Van Woerkom, Research librarian, NPR

          Robert Benincasa, Data producer-reporter, NPR

          Smokey Baer, Mix producer

          Jani Actman and Courtney Mabeus, Interns, NPR

About: “Missed Treatment: Soldiers With Mental Health Issues Dismissed For 'Misconduct'”

NPR and CPR discovered, and reported for the first time, that the Army has kicked out more than 22,000 combat soldiers who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems and traumatic brain injuries, and taken away their benefits -- on the grounds that they committed some sort of “misconduct.” And the Army has done that since Congress passed a law in 2009 specifically to try to stop the practice.

More: we obtained, and broadcast for the first time, secret recordings of actual therapy session between a troubled combat soldier and Army psychotherapists. Listeners can hear for themselves what many soldiers have alleged for years: Army therapists sometimes shrug off their complaints that they’re falling apart and even feeling suicidal.  

And we discovered that a top-level Army investigation of these issues at Fort Carson, in Colorado, which concluded that there are no “systemic” problems, was in effect a whitewash.

The reactions to “Missed Treatment” came quickly. Twelve U.S. senators wrote a letter to the Acting Secretary of the Army demanding an investigation, based on our report. Weeks later, the Army Secretary assured the senators in writing that he’s forming a group of senior officials to do it. And just today, as we submit this entry (February 1, 2016), four of those senators are calling on the Army to impose an immediate moratorium on discharging any more combat soldiers for misconduct, if they’ve been diagnosed with mental health or brain injuries.  

Background

Our investigation started almost by accident. As Zwerdling describes it, “I was chatting on the phone with a soldiers’ rights advocate, who’d called to pitch an unrelated story. He had launched into a monologue of sorts about the military’s various failings, as he sees them, and my attention was starting to drift. Then he mentioned as an aside, ‘You should hear some of those tapes a soldier made of his therapy appointments, you won’t believe it.’ Which yanked me back into focus.

“Tapes?” I said. “What do you mean?”

Then the advocate told Zwerdling that he had already given the tapes to another reporter -- de Yoanna, at an NPR member station. Minutes later, Zwerdling and de Yoanna were on the phone with each other agreeing to join forces.

Over the coming months, we

  • listened to hours of the secret recordings. We played some of them for what we call a “panel of experts” -- nationally-respected psychiatrists who’ve worked with the Army and Marines, as well as military lawyers and other specialists -- to see how they reacted. Curiously, some top mental health specialists we contacted refused even to listen to the tapes, because they said they were worried that Army officials would “blacklist” them if they found out they were helping us.

 

  • retraced the steps of the Army’s own investigation of Fort Carson, and tracked down and interviewed key potential witnesses whom Army officials acknowledged to us they had never bothered to contact. It took hundreds of phone calls and texts to convince some of the current and former soldiers to talk with us – because some were afraid of retribution, and some were so emotionally fragile, and one had so little money that his phone was cut off.

 

  • made several trips to Fort Carson, to woo an inside Army source who had key documents and other first-hand information that could corroborate some of our main findings. It took months to persuade the source to talk with us.

 

  • submitted FOIA’s for a wide range of Army documents and statistics. Army officials kept giving us the runaround: “We at MEDCOM are not the ones who keep those statistics, call Human Resources Command.” Next call: “We at Human Resources Command don’t keep those statistics, call MEDCOM...” It took us months of prodding, and cajoling, and reminding, and more prodding and conference calls, to finally get the Army to answer our seemingly simple question: How many soldiers have you kicked out for “misconduct” after they come back from the wars with mental health problems and traumatic brain injuries? Get this: Army officials told us they had never even bothered to compile this statistic before – despite the federal law. 

 

The story prompted almost immediate calls from members of Congress for the Army to investigate whether they’re discharging mentally injured combat troops unfairly – and, as we mentioned above, the Army agreed. Now some of the senators are asking the Army to declare an immediate moratorium (http://www.npr.org/2016/02/01/464907342/senators-want-moratorium-on-dismissing-soldiers-during-investigation?live=1).