SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Since late last year, NPR's been reporting that military leaders at Fort Carson, Colorado, had been punishing soldiers who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious mental health problems. In some cases, they've kicked those soldiers out of the service with few or no benefits.
As a result of those reports, a group of U.S. senators and Pentagon officials have been doing their own investigations, and they pressured commanders at Fort Carson to pledge that conditions will improve. None of that would likely have happened if it weren't for a former soldier who has launched a personal crusade to help soldiers in trouble. His name is Andrew Pogany and this story shows how a lone advocate can help shine the national spotlight on what would have been a hidden problem.
NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: When Jason Harvey came back from Iraq to Fort Carson two years ago, he started having screaming nightmares. His records show he told the medical unit he thought about killing himself. And doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, but Harvey didn't get intensive therapy. Instead his leaders kept punishing him because they said he was messing up on the job. Jason's mother, Amy, says she called officials at Fort Carson and begged them to help.
Ms. AMY HARVEY (Jason Harvey's Mother): And no one did anything, no one at Fort Carson was there for Jason. They take children and they send them to war and then they don't take care of them.
ZWERDLING: One night last year, Jason slashed his arms and wrists. They rushed him to the Army hospital. And today, both he and his mother will tell you that there's one main reason he's still alive.
Ms. HARVEY: Andrew was there for Jason. He was the only person that actually knew how to help.
ZWERDLING: If you had not called Andrew Pogany, where would you be now?
Mr. JASON HARVEY (Former Private Soldier, U.S. Army): Probably in the hospital or in jail, if not dead.
ZWERDLING: In fact, I've talked with more than a dozen soldiers and family members recently who say Pogany helped save them, too. Andrew Pogany is 36 years old. He's short, intense; his legs are always jiggling. He has a G.I. Joe doll on his filing cabinet and a Buddha in his living room.
Pogany's own saga at Fort Carson started about four years ago. He went to Iraq as a staff sergeant to work in intelligence with Special Forces, but shortly after he got there, Pogany got a panic attack. He started hallucinating. He says he thought he was going insane. His commanders sent him back to Fort Carson, but they didn't send him to treatment. They charged Pogany with cowardice. That's a military crime that's punishable by death that made CNN.
(Soundbite of CNN News report)
Unidentified Man #1: Ex-sergeant George Andreas Pogany spends a lot of time preparing for a court marshall so Pogany can prove he's not a coward.
ZWERDLING: Pogany remembers the exact moment he hit bottom. And everything turned around.
Mr. ANDREW POGANY (Retired, U.S. Army): I was sitting at my desk just as I'm sitting at my desk right now, and I was just staring into a monitor that was not on. And I was just saying to myself that I'm done. I'm done. I'm crumbling under the stress. And I was going to give up.
ZWERDLING: But then, he says his wife walked into the room and she said to him, you know you're not a coward. Why don't you fight back? And Pogany says something clicked. He did know how to fight. The Army had taught him how - in counterintelligence school. So Pogany started doing what they taught him. He studied his enemy's tactics. In this case, that means he read the fine print in the U.S. Army's rules and regulations.
Mr. POGANY: I used to literally sleep with the manual for court-martial underneath my pillow.
ZWERDLING: Come on.
Mr. POGANY: No, I'm serious. That's why if you look at it today, it is actually torn. And 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 going to tell the truth.
ZWERDLING: Pogany dug up medical studies that reveal that the anti-malaria drug the Army gave him and other soldiers can cause the very psychotic symptoms he got in Iraq. And Pogany hired a lawyer named Richard Travis. Travis used to be the Army's chief prosecutor at Fort Carson. He says he's never met anybody like Andrew Pogany.
Mr. RICHARD TRAVIS (Lawyer): Oftentimes, clients will help with the case in the sense of gathering facts. But Andrew did more than just gather facts. He did a phenomenal job on researching those regulations, more than anyone I've ever seen. He finally got in a position, he realized that just because somebody's a colonel that doesn't mean they're right.
(Soundbite of recording of news report)
Unidentified Man #2: Today, the Army dropped its case against Sergeant George Andreas Pogany. The decision to drop all charges came after doctors last month diagnosed him with a symptom consistent with side…
ZWERDLING: After all that, the Army retired Pogany on medical grounds and gave him an honorable discharge. They did not pay his legal bills, which came to more than $30,000. Pogany says, at that point, he just wanted to forget Fort Carson and move on. But one afternoon, he was walking through the base hospital to a doctor's appointment and a soldier stopped him.
Mr. POGANY: And I just kind of, you know, very abruptly said, you know, hey, what (bleep) do you want?
ZWERDLING: You had a chip on your shoulder.
Mr. POGANY: Well, I was, you know, at that point, it was all about me doing what I needed to do for me, to help myself. Does that make sense?
Mr. POGANY: A soldier asks us. I know who you are. And I'm like, yeah, whatever. And he says, well, I got this problem and nobody will help me.
ZWERDLING: Pogany reluctantly decided he would help. Then that soldier gave Pogany's name to somebody else.
(Soundbite of recording of phone conversation)
Mr. POGANY: This is Andrew.
Unidentified Man #2: Hey, Andrew. I just got a call back from the Army hotline (unintelligible).
Mr. POGANY: Okay. What did they tell you?
ZWERDLING: And these days, it's impossible to talk with Pogany for more than a few minutes without getting interrupted because he gets dozens of calls like this every day, from desperate soldiers and their families.
(Soundbite of recording of phone conversation)
Mr. POGANY: Do this. Send me an e-mail with a list of all the names of people that feel like they are getting abused and mistreated and their contact information.
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)
ZWERDLING: And Pogany's new mission has taken over his life. After he left the Army a couple of years ago, he got a full-time job doing security at an Air Force base. But he spent most of his other waking hours at nights and on weekends helping troops for free.
(Soundbite of crowd talking)
ZWERDLING: Early one Sunday morning, I followed Pogany to a breakfast meeting with a soldier from Fort Carson.
Unidentified Woman #1: And for you, sir?
Specialist BILLY TALLEY(ph) (Soldier, U.S. Army): Let me get the (unintelligible) bacon and eggs.
Unidentified Woman: How do you like your eggs?
ZWERDLING: The soldier's name is Billy Talley. His whole family is with him. Their baby, their two squirming little boys and his wife, Natasha.
Ms. NATASHA TALLEY (Billy's wife): 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. They haven't given me any resources. I can't imagine how we been struggling with this without knowing what we know now because of Andrew. I can completely see how that could push somebody over the edge.
ZWERDLING: Pogany has been working with the Talleys the same way he helps other soldiers and their families. First, he studied every page in Talley's Army file. These show his commanders hailed Talley for unmatched bravery back when he was fighting in the mountains in Afghanistan. But when he came home last Christmas on leave, Talley fell apart. His medical records show he couldn't stop crying and the doctors at Fort Carson diagnosed him with chronic PTSD and depression.
But Talley's officers said he'd committed a military crime because he didn't go back to the war. He went to the mental health unit and asked for help instead. His officers demoted him, which slashed his pay by a third, and they ordered Talley to do menial chores.
Specialist TALLEY: I'm put on details almost every day. Sweep, mop, clean -clean the latrines, stuff like that.
ZWERDLING: And Pogany says the documents show that the way commanders have been treating Talley seems to violate military rules. So Pogany called half a dozen officers who run Talley's battalion. And he met with them to argue Talley's case. Pogany also gave them medical studies, which suggest that you can make people with PTSD sicker if you punish them. But the officers wouldn't back down. So later the same week, Pogany is going with Talley to see another commander to appeal.
Mr. POGANY: And then I'll lay the entire case out against to him and then we're going to add the information that comes out of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress - that pamphlet that I just gave you.
Specialist TALLEY: No doubt. It might be (unintelligible).
Mr. POGANY: Hey, thanks for your time again. I am sorry that, you know, this is continuing. You know what? I find it disgusting, you know, to put you through this process of belittling you, you know, telling you that you committed a crime. Instead of cleaning toilets, you should be in treatment. This is disgusting.
ZWERDLING: But the fact that commanders at Fort Carson are meeting with Pogany shows that he's finally forced them to take him seriously. Because when Pogany started helping soldiers almost three years ago, officers wouldn't even answer his phone calls, so he started going to see them in person, unannounced.
Even friends will tell you that Pogany can be abrasive, and he'd walk up to officers at their headquarters. He'd say such and such a soldier asked me to speak with you. And then Pogany would invariably pull out a document and say something like do you realize you're violating Army Regulation 40-505, Standards of Medical Fitness? Some military leaders reacted by plastering Fort Carson with wanted posters. They showed a grainy headshot of Pogany, and said if anybody spotted him, they should call the military police to kick him out.
Meanwhile, Pogany had joined forces with a group of activists called Veterans for America. They started telling Congress about their problems at Fort Carson. And Pogany helped reporters meet soldiers at the base so the whole country could hear their stories.
(Soundbite of archived NPR clip)
MICHELE NORRIS: But an NPR investigation at one Army base - Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado - revealed soldiers, who feel desperate and have tried to kill themselves, have trouble getting the help they need.
ZWERDLING: And suddenly an important Army base had become an embarrassment to the Bush administration. And the top Republican is one of the toughest critics. Senator Kit Bond from Missouri has helped lead this Senate investigation of Fort Carson.
Senator KIT BOND (Republican, Missouri): In a number of cases we've seen, in some very egregious cases, and these people came back after horrible experiences. They're bounced out of the service, aren't eligible for health care disability benefits and this is just isn't unacceptable.
ZWERDLING: And Bond says Andrew Pogany and his colleagues of Veterans for America have played a key role exposing the problems.
Sen. BOND: One thing that we do know is that he's one to whom the soldiers will speak and he has been unyielding in his efforts to bring their cases forward. And obviously that causes some upset and stirs up the bureaucracy, and I think that's good.
ZWERDLING: When I met the top general at Fort Carson recently, he said he'd heard the message. General Robert Mixon was sitting in his office next to a chart filled with colored columns that show the status of his troops. He and other commanders at Fort Carson wouldn't talk to me about specific soldiers like Billy Talley. They said they're protecting the troops' privacy.
But Mixon gives credit to Andrew Pogany and his colleagues, if a bit begrudgingly.
Major General ROBERT MIXOM (Commander, Fort Carson): If they have 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. No commander I know of, me included, wants to hear that bad things are potentially happening in your organization. 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.
ZWERDLING: For instance, Mixon launched a new training program early this year. He says it teaches every leader from sergeants to generals how to help soldiers with emotional problems, although Mixon says give them time because you can't change a huge bureaucracy overnight.
And when I visited Fort Carson recently, I saw evidence that he is right. I talked with five soldiers beside Billy Talley who've been diagnosed with PTSD and other serious mental health problems. They all charged that their officers have mistreated them, and they have records to back it up.
And now, Fort Carson faces yet another investigation. The Government Accountability Office - the GAO - has announced that it's examining how bases across the country treat soldiers in emotional trouble. Fort Carson is near the top of the list.
And that's encouraging news for Andrew Pogany because he's spent most of the last three years investigating it by himself.
Mr. POGANY: The Soldiers Creed says, I will never leave a fallen comrade. If I made a difference in one person's life then it's all worth it.
ZWERDLING: Some people will say that's corny.
Mr. POGANY: Well, they may say that that's corny, but you know what, at least 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. Have you done that? What have you done to support troops?
ZWERDLING: Pogany got another bit of good news. Just last month, the advocacy group, Veterans for America, hired him as a staff investigator. That means he'll finally get paid for his crusade.
Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.