U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

(AP Photo)

A dozen U.S. senators want to know why the Army has booted out 22,000 troops since 2009, soldiers who got into some kind of trouble after they returned from war. Colorado's Michael Bennet is among the lawmakers who sent a letter to Army brass on Wednesday, concerned the men and women who were pushed out also have brain injuries and other mental problems.
 
The letter came on the heels of an investigative report by NPR and Colorado Public Radio.
 
The senators want an independent probe to see if there are widespread problems with the Army's care system at Colorado’s Fort Carson, home to soldiers who had post-traumatic stress, blast concussions and other problems. When they got back from Iraq and Afghanistan they got into trouble -- caught drinking and driving or being late for duty -- and the Army moved to kick them out. 

The Evans Army Community Hospital in Fort Carson, Colo.

(Courtesy U.S. Army)

What that means is that those soldiers might not get lasting medical benefits when they're out, or they might have trouble getting a job or not be eligible for veterans programs.  

Mental health experts say that troops who face war trauma may have real difficulty adjusting to life when they get home from war, and Congress knows this. In 2009, it passed a law that directs the military to help soldiers who are struggling instead of pushing them out; the military has to consider whether service in the war is a factor in troops' behavior once they are home.

The NPR/CPR investigation found that nobody has checked to see if the Army is following this law until now.

“Serious allegations have been raised, and an independent investigation is needed,” Bennet said in a statement released Wednesday. “We must ensure that servicemembers suffering from mental health conditions like PTS and from TBIs receive the quality care they need both during and following their service, and a fair evaluation when being considered for discharge.”

Bennet couldn't be reached for comment directly, but his spokesman Adam Bozzi said the senator has been watching the Army closely for months now and is concerned by what our investigation found. Beyond concerns about the process, Bennet wants numbers. Last year, the senator led passage of a bill requiring the Government Accountability Office to see if troops being discharged for conduct issues also have PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other combat-related issues -- the so-called hidden injuries of war.

Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group CEO Andrew Pogany, left, and COO Robert Alvarez, both advocates for disabled soldiers, review paperwork at USJAG's offices in Denver.

(Michael de Yoanna/CPR News)

Andrew Pogany, CEO/investigator with the nonprofit Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group, was curious about the 22,000 troops who were pushed out. He said the government should work to find out what has happened to those troops -- to see if they've become homeless or committed suicide.

Pogany added that senators made a mistake by asking the Army to do the investigation. He's documented many, many issues over the last decade or so  and he’s discouraged by the Army's past investigations into the treatment of soldiers with PTSD and brain injuries.

In short, Pogany doesn't trust the Army to investigate and would like to see a commission that's independent of the military created to investigate. 

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut is leading the call for the probe. He sent the letter to the Army's Office of the Inspector General Wednesday.  Along with Bennet, the letter was also signed by by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tim Kaine, D-Va. 
 
"I'm not arguing, nor are my colleagues arguing, that you should keep in the military someone who has committed a [driving under the influence] or someone who has committed another serious crime," Murphy told NPR. "We're arguing that you should medically discharge these individuals if that active misconduct is a manifestation of the disability, so they can continue to get help."
 
Wayne Hall, a spokesman for the Army at the Pentagon, issued a brief reaction by email: "The Army has received the letter and will respond accordingly."
 

 

The full letter from the senators is below:

The Honorable Eric Fanning
Acting Under Secretary of the Army                                                                                   
1000 Army Pentagon                                                                         
Washington, DC 20305-1000                                                          

General Mark A. Milley
Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army
1500 Army Pentagon
Washington, DC 20310-1500

Dear Honorable Fanning and General Milley:

We are troubled by recent allegations that the U.S. Army is forcefully separating for misconduct servicemembers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). We encourage you to conduct a full U.S. Army Inspector General investigation into these recent allegations that the U.S. Army is violating the intent of Section 512 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2010.

Recent media reports indicate that since January 2009, the U.S. Army has separated over 22,000 soldiers for misconduct after they returned from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan and were diagnosed with mental health problems or TBI. As a result, many of the dismissed soldiers have not received crucial retirement benefits, health care benefits, and post-service employment eligibility that soldiers receive with an honorable discharge. Soldiers who deploy are at an increased risk for mental health issues and the forceful separation of servicemembers post-deployment only further denies treatment and support at a critical moment in any soldier’s life.  Additionally, fear of dismissal may discourage servicemembers from seeking the medical treatment they require.

Section 574 of the FY14 NDAA called for a GAO report to look into these kinds of dismissal cases. That report was delivered to Congress in February of this year recommending that the services develop a method to identify the number of servicemembers separated for non-disability mental conditions and take actions to ensure that servicemembers are appropriately separated for non-disability mental conditions in accordance with DoD’s separation requirements.  Serious gaps in DoD policies have been identified and any investigation going forward should take this into consideration.

We are concerned that it may be easier to discharge servicemembers for minor misconduct—possibly related to mental health issues—than to evaluate them for conditions that may warrant a medical discharge. We know that the health and safety of our servicemembers and their families is your top priority and we are confident that you will investigate these recent allegations.  Thank you again for your service to our country and we look forward to working with you to rectify this grave offense to the men and women that serve in our armed forces.

Sincerely,

Christopher S. Murphy
Barbara Boxer
Ron Wyden
Jon Tester
Tammy Baldwin
Ed Markey
Richard Blumenthal
Gary Peters
Sherrod Brown
Michael Bennet
Amy Klobuchar
Tim Kaine

 

The CPR News-NPR Investigative Series: