Checking In on Fort Carson, Part II

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Problems at Fort Carson in Colorado, where soldiers were punished despite showing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other conditions, prompted the base's commanders to vow that soldiers would get the help they need.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Military studies show that as many as one quarter of soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have symptoms of serious mental health problems. After an NPR investigation, leaders at Fort Carson, Colorado, launched a new training program that they said would get help to every soldier who needs it.

But during a recent visit, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling found that this call seems to conflict with the military's demand for discipline.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: When Billy Talley(ph) was fighting in Afghanistan, he got an award for unmatched bravery. His commander wrote that Talley defined new levels of excellence, and they redeployed him to Iraq.

Then, he flew home last Christmas for what was supposed to be two weeks' leave. And he says when he went to the airport to go to Iraq he suddenly started shaking. He got paranoid. He flipped out.

I met Talley on a recent Sunday morning over breakfast at a restaurant. He was sitting stiffly at one end of the table. Meanwhile, his wife Natasha was trying to soothe their baby and two little boys. Talley says it's hard to describe what happened.

Specialist BILLY TALLEY (U.S. Army; PTSD Survivor): I don't know. I was like -just had no control over myself, no control over my mind and my body. I just...

Ms. NATASHA TALLEY (Spc. Billy Talley's wife): You had been wandering the airport.

Mr. TALLEY: A couple of hours, yes.

Ms. TALLEY: For a couple of hours before you even called me. I didn't know what he was going to do. He just sounded very disoriented. He was not himself.

ZWERDLING: After Natasha calmed him down, Talley went immediately to Fort Carson, and he told his supervisors he desperately needed help. His medical records show that over the next few weeks, the doctors at the base diagnosed him with chronic PTSD and depression. He couldn't stop crying. They gave him drugs and sent him to a counseling group. And then, Talley's leaders charged him with violating the code of military justice, and they demoted him. They cut his pay by more than one third because they ordered him to go back to Iraq, and he got psychiatric treatment instead.

The week I was at Fort Carson, four other soldiers told me they've been falling apart. Their leaders have been punishing them and in some cases taking steps to kick them out of the army. The soldiers showed me their army records to confirm it, and their leaders have been doing all this since commanders at Fort Carson proclaimed that things are better.

Of course, you can't expect every leader at Fort Carson to change just because they went to the new training on PTSD. Still, General Robert Mixon insists that he'll punish any leaders who mistreat soldiers in trouble.

Are you holding, you know, anybody here accountable for letting soldiers fall through the racks?

Maj. Gen. ROBERT MIXON (Commanding General, Division West and Fort Carson, Colorado): Yes, we are. And we will. We expect leaders to support soldiers getting care and treatment without bias. And if we see evidence of bias, we'll take disciplinary action against the leaders who demonstrate that bias.

ZWERDLING: But Mixon couldn't tell me what kind of disciplinary action they've taken or how many leaders they've actually disciplined. He said his right-hand man would know that.

So I went down the hallway to see the generals' command sergeant major. Terrance McWilliams sat at a conference table that's covered with hundreds of his medals. He says he hasn't punished any leaders.

Command Sergeant Major TERRANCE McWILLIAMS (Division West and Fort Carson, Colorado): No, we have not taken disciplinary actions.

ZWERDLING: He says he has reprimanded a few leaders verbally. That's it. At this point in the interview, McWilliams sheds light on the dilemma that seems to be causing so much controversy around Fort Carson. Remember, their new training program stresses that soldiers who get PTSD and other emotional disorders commonly misbehave. Remember that part of the lecture?

Ms. LAUREL JOHNSON (Psychiatric Nurse, Fort Carson): Do not ignore the warning signs - excessive drinking, marital problems, domestic abuse, suspected drug use, declining work performance.

ZWERDLING: Yet here it is, months after the commanders have launched their new training. And the command sergeant major insists that they'll punish soldiers who misbehave in those very ways, even when the Army's doctors confirm that the soldiers have disorders like PTSD

Command Sgt. Maj. McWILLIAMS: We got to understand one factor there, and that is, you know, we have an obligation - to maintain good order and discipline. And we just can't use or say that my experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan is a justification as to why I broke the law. We're all human. We know the difference between right and wrong.

ZWERDLING: Is that too tough a standard? Are you allowing enough for the fact that some soldiers who have serious mental health problems linked partly to fighting in the war just might be falling apart so much that, yeah, now, they're taking drugs or now, they're going AWOL. And, you know, you have to forgive that.

Command Sgt. Maj. McWILLIAMS: I won't say it's too tough of a standard that we have established policies, procedures and guidelines that we have to follow. But again, we are a caring organization, and we're going to do what's right by our soldiers. That we're going to do, okay? But at the same time, we still have to maintain good order and discipline.

ZWERDLING: The psychiatrist who runs the mental health center at Fort Carson stands by this policy, too. It's Dr. Stephen Knorr.

Dr. STEPHEN KNORR (Chief Psychiatrist, Fort Carson Mental Health Center): PTSD is not an excuse for bad behavior.

ZWERDLING: Knorr is in charge of all the specialists who diagnose the soldiers and treat them. While we were talking, I noticed there was a memo pinned to his bulletin board. The document was striking because it didn't really look like something you'd expect in a therapy office. Knorr laughed uncomfortably, but he agreed to read it.

You've written: common mistakes made when dealing with...

Dr. KNORR: With troubled problem soldiers.

ZWERDLING: ...with troubled problem soldiers. And if you could just read the first two or...

Knorr says he wrote this memo to help commanders deal with soldiers who have mental health problems like PTSD. Now, top official at the Pentagon say the military's goal is to heal every soldier who comes back from the war or at least help them get well enough to stay in the service or live a good life when they life the Army. But Knorr's memo tells officers at Fort Carson that they're making a mistake if they're, quote, "trying to save every soldier," unquote. He reads on.

Dr. KNORR: We can't fix every soldier, and neither can you. We have to hold soldiers accountable for their behavior.

ZWERDLING: And then you go on and say everyone in life, beyond babies, the insane and the...

Dr. KNORR: The insane and the demented and mentally retarded have to be held accountable for what they do in their life.

ZWERDLING: Then Knorr's memo warns commanders that another mistake is, quote, "procrastination on discipline and separation," unquote. Translation: officers should get rid of troubled soldiers quickly.

Dr. KNORR: You know, from a commander's standpoint and from a staff sergeant's standpoint, they - a staff sergeant might have 30 soldiers in his platoon, and he has to get them trained and ready and working as a cohesive team. If he has one or two soldiers who are now showing up for work, who are showing up intoxicated, who are using illicit drugs or going AWOL, that soldier with the misconduct problems is dragging down the whole platoon. And they don't have time for that.

ZWERDLING: If I'm understanding you right, you're saying, folks, you have to understand we are the Army. We're fighting a war. We can't spend endless time and money and energy trying to cure every single soldier who comes back with problems.

Dr. KNORR: Exactly.

ZWERDLING: After I left Fort Carson, I played Knorr's comments for Dr. Stephen Xenakis. He's the former brigadier general in the Army's medical command. Xenakis said, it really saddens me to hear that. He sighed, and he added, that policy at Fort Carson is inhumane.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You can read the previous reports in our series about mental health treatment at Fort Carson at our Web site, npr.org.

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