MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, from the state of the Army to concerns about the state of some of its fighting men and women. We have reported before that some who come home with serious mental health problems often can get the medical treatment they need. And some commanders have actually kicked soldiers out of the military instead of trying to help them.
Today, our reports have included anecdotal evidence because the Pentagon hasn't released detailed statistics. Well, now there are some Pentagon figures. And they show that since the U.S. invaded Iraq, officers have kicked out 28,000 troops for behavior issues that are potentially linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. That's far more than they did before the war.
NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: We've talked with dozens of former soldiers and Marines who've told us that same basic story. There are stories are wrenching, but they don't answer a crucial question: Are commanders getting rid of lots of troops who developed mental health problems in the war? Or have we stumbled on a tiny group that got mistreated? To help find out, I asked the Pentagon, how many troops have commanders discharged from one year to the next? And why did they discharge them?
The Marine Corps hasn't sent us statistics. But the Army did. And I sent them to a retired brigadier general.
Dr. STEPHEN XENAKIS (Psychiatrist; Retired Brigadier General, U.S. Army): They trouble me. I mean, I would follow it up with lots of more questions. So it raises questions of, first, are we doing the right thing by the soldiers?
ZWERDLING: Stephen Xenakis is a psychiatrist. He used to help run the Army's medical system. He says the Army's statistics seem to corroborate what many former troops told us. Their records show that when they came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, they were diagnosed with PTSD or traumatic brain injury or other serious mental health problems, and they started acting out.
Dr. XENAKIS: They don't show up for formation. They're late for formation. They talk back to their sergeants.
ZWERDLING: Drinking? Drugs?
Dr. XENAKIS: Drinking, drugs, all that kind of thing. They medicate themselves. You know, they say, why should I keep my uniform all starched and neat when, you know, I just buried two of my buddies?
ZWERDLING: Xenakis says, those behaviors are some of the most common symptoms of disorders like PTSD. But the troops we met could hardly get medical treatment. Instead, their commanders kicked many of them out of the service for misconduct.
So now, look at the chart the Army sent us. Roughly, since the U.S. invaded Iraq, Army commanders have discharged almost 20 percent more soldiers for misconduct than they did during the same period before the war. They've kicked out more than twice as many soldiers for doing drugs. As a result, soldiers lost some or all of their military benefits. And commanders have discharged other troops who were diagnosed with PTSD on the grounds that they have a personality disorder.
Jonathan Shay is a psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He's been studying combat vets for decade. And Shay says, when the military diagnoses you with personality disorder, they're telling you, in effect, that fighting in the war didn't mess you up.
Dr. JONATHAN SHAY (Psychiatrist, Department of Veterans Affairs): It's saying, in essence, you're rotten and have been rotten since childhood.
ZWERDLING: And Shay says, so how come the Army never diagnosed it when they signed you up. Again, look at that new Army chart. It shows that roughly, since the war in Iraq began, they've discharged 40 percent more soldiers for personality disorder than they did on the same period before the war. And Shay and other mental health specialists worry that commanders are abusing that diagnosis because it's convenient.
According to the Army's rules, if you're not a good soldier anymore because you have PTSD, it can take months to discharge you and they have to pay you disability benefits. But if an Army psychiatrist says you have personality disorder, then your commander can expel you in a couple of weeks, and they don't pay you a cent.
Dr. SHAY: It troubles me that it appears that sometimes mental health professionals are ready to be the willing servants of the command, you know. If you want me to get this kid out quickly, I'll do it. It doesn't matter how much I have to bend my own conscience or bend the facts to do it.
ZWERDLING: In all, the Army says, that's discharged more than 28,000 soldiers since the war in Iraq began for personality disorder and misconduct.
Early this week, we sent requests to five spokesmen at the Army and the Pentagon to interview a top official about these issues. They didn't grant those requests.
The medical specialists I talked to stressed that the Army statistics do not prove that commanders are dumping soldiers who got mental health problems in the war. But they say the figures should prompt the military to do a lot more research.
Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.