Former Soldier Helps Others Fight Army for Help

Andrew Pogany Talks on the Phone i i

hide captionFormer soldier Andrew Pogany, shown in his home basement office, gets dozens of calls a day from soldiers with serious mental health problems who need help dealing with the Army.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Andrew Pogany Talks on the Phone

Former soldier Andrew Pogany, shown in his home basement office, gets dozens of calls a day from soldiers with serious mental health problems who need help dealing with the Army.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Pogany Meets with Soldier and Wife i i

hide captionAndrew Pogany (center) finishes up a breakfast meeting with Fort Carson soldier Ryan LeCompte and his wife, Tammie. They contacted Pogany because they say supervisors punished LeCompte instead of helping him get treatment for PTSD.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Pogany Meets with Soldier and Wife

Andrew Pogany (center) finishes up a breakfast meeting with Fort Carson soldier Ryan LeCompte and his wife, Tammie. They contacted Pogany because they say supervisors punished LeCompte instead of helping him get treatment for PTSD.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

Learn how Pogany and the LeComptes have battled the military since this story aired.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon in His Office i i

hide captionMaj. Gen. Robert Mixon, one of the top commanders who run Fort Carson, says the Army's handling of PTSD cases is changing.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon in His Office

Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon, one of the top commanders who run Fort Carson, says the Army's handling of PTSD cases is changing.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
G.I. Joe Sits in Pogany's Office i i

hide captionA G.I. Joe action figure in Pogany's home office serves as a reminder of his service in the Army.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
G.I. Joe Sits in Pogany's Office

A G.I. Joe action figure in Pogany's home office serves as a reminder of his service in the Army.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

When Jason Harvey came back from Iraq to Fort Carson, Colo., two years ago, he started having screaming nightmares. His records show he told the medical unit he thought about killing himself.

Doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. But instead of sending him to intensive therapy, his Army commanders kept punishing him, saying he was messing up on the job. Harvey's mother, Amy Harvey, says she called officials at Fort Carson and begged them to help.

"No one at Fort Carson was there for Jason," she recalls. "They take children and they send them to war. And then they don't take care of them."

One night last year, Harvey slashed his arms and wrists and was rushed to the hospital. Today, both he and his mother will tell you there's one main reason he's still alive: Andrew Pogany.

The 36-year-old former soldier has become a driving force behind efforts to force the Army to revise its response to soldiers suffering from PTSD. Pogany's saga shows how an advocate can overcome enormous obstacles and battle a powerful institution — and help shine the national spotlight on what had largely been a hidden problem.

As NPR reported last year, numerous soldiers from Fort Carson who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious mental health problems have been kicked out of the Army with few or no benefits. Those reports prompted a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, as well as officials at the Pentagon, to investigate Fort Carson. In turn, the public attention pressured commanders to pledge that returning soldiers would get better treatment.

Pogany's crusade began after he endured a similar ordeal. After being deployed as a staff sergeant in Iraq, he had a panic attack and began hallucinating. Commanders sent him back to Fort Carson. But instead of giving him intensive medical treatment, officers there charged Pogany with cowardice, a military crime punishable by death.

His case drew national headlines, and Pogany says that at one point, he nearly gave up. But then, he decided to fight back, using the counterintelligence techniques the Army had taught him. "Once I figured out that they're just not going to tell the truth, then I said to myself, 'Well guess what, then I'm gonna tell the truth.'"

He pored over Army regulations and became convinced that the Army's case against him violated the military's own rules. He unearthed studies in medical journals, revealing that the anti-malaria medication the Army gave him and other soldiers can cause the psychiatric symptoms he suffered in Iraq.

After medical specialists testified that the Army's own medications had likely caused Pogany's mental breakdown, officials dropped all charges against him and medically retired him with an honorable discharge.

At that point, Pogany says, he wanted to forget Fort Carson and move on. But as he was walking one afternoon through the base hospital to a doctor's appointment, a soldier stopped him and said he knew that Pogany had battled the Army and won. The soldier said he was suffering from PTSD, his leaders were punishing him and he didn't know what to do. So, Pogany says, he taught the soldier how to fight back.

Since then, soldiers at Fort Carson who have come back from the war with serious mental health problems have barraged Pogany with pleas for help.

Today, it's hard to talk with him for long without being interrupted by his cell phone. He gets dozens of calls a day, from people like soldier Billy Talley and his wife, Natasha.

"If we hadn't met Andrew, we wouldn't have known very much about PTSD because the Army, even the Behavioral Health Center, is not telling us a whole lot," Natasha Talley says.

Pogany has been helping the Talleys in much the same way he helps other soldiers and families in trouble — as an unofficial ombudsman. For instance, he studied Talley's Army files, which show that his commanders hailed the soldier for "unmatched bravery" when he was fighting in Afghanistan. But after he came home last Christmas on short-term leave, Talley started shaking uncontrollably and crying — so he didn't return to combat, as scheduled. Instead, he went to the base mental health unit and asked for help.

Despite the fact that doctors at Fort Carson diagnosed Talley with chronic PTSD and depression, his commanding officers charged him with a military crime and demoted him in rank.

Pogany has been meeting with Talley's officers, arguing that the way they've been treating him violates the military's own rules and risks making his PTSD worse.

So far, Talley's commanders have not relented. But the fact that they and other officers at Fort Carson have met with Pogany shows that he has forced them to take him seriously. When he first started approaching officers on soldiers' behalf, they refused to take his phone calls. At one point, some leaders at the base had put up posters with Pogany's picture, in effect warning soldiers to stay away from him.

Officials in Washington are paying attention, as well. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) says Pogany and his colleagues at the advocacy group Veterans for America are making a difference for soldiers who are victims of "egregious" mistreatment.

Pogany, Bond says, "has been unyielding in his efforts to bring their cases forward. Obviously that causes some upset. It stirs up the bureaucracy and I think that's good."

Even one of the top commanders who run Fort Carson, Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon, acknowledges the contributions of Pogany and the veterans group. Partly as a result of their efforts, Mixon says, he and his staff are changing the way they handle soldiers with PTSD and other mental health problems triggered by war.

"If they've identified one soldier who has been in need of help and has not gotten enough help, then they've done a great service to us," Mixon says. "I did not feel as though we had leaders who weren't supporting our soldiers end to end, including their mental health challenges. But when we were presented with circumstances where that might have been the case, then we took immediate action to deal with them individually, and then we took action to deal with it institutionally."

Mixon launched a new training program early this year that he says teaches every leader from sergeants to generals how to help soldiers with emotional problems.

Mixon acknowledges it will take some time, given the difficulty of changing a huge bureaucracy. And records and interviews with soldiers at Fort Carson show that problems remain in the treatment of PTSD.

The inquiries have also spread beyond Fort Carson. The Government Accountability Office has announced that it's examining how bases across the country treat soldiers in emotional trouble.

That's encouraging news for Andrew Pogany.

"The soldier's creed says 'I will never leave a fallen comrade,'" Pogany says. "At the end of the day, when I put my head on my pillow, I can say that the yellow ribbon is not just a magnet that I put on my car. I actually put my yellow ribbon into action."

And then Pogany poses a question. "What have you done to support troops?"

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