The U.S. Army has kicked out more than 22,000 soldiers since 2009 for "misconduct," after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and were diagnosed with mental health disorders and traumatic brain injuries. That means many of those soldiers are not receiving the crucial treatment or retirement and health care benefits they would have received with an honorable discharge.
The Army has taken these actions despite a 2009 federal law designed to ensure that troops whose mental illness might be linked to the wars aren't cast aside.
That's the finding of a joint investigation by NPR and Colorado Public Radio that listened to hours of secret recordings, looked at hundreds of pages of confidential military documents and interviewed dozens of sources both inside and outside the base.
One of the Army's top officials who oversee mental health, Lt. Col. Chris Ivany, told NPR and CPR that the Army is not violating the spirit of the 2009 law by dismissing those soldiers for misconduct.
He says the soldiers' "functional impairment was not severe" enough in some cases to affect their judgment. In other cases, the soldiers' disorders might have been serious when they were diagnosed, but their "condition subsequently improved" before they committed misconduct — so they can't blame the war for causing them to misbehave.
The commander who runs the Army's medical system, Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, ordered an investigation last year into one small piece of this nationwide problem. Commanders had told Staff Sgt. Eric James, an Army sniper who served two tours in Iraq, that they were going to separate him for misconduct because of a two-year-old driving-under-the-influence charge. James began secretly recording his meetings with Army therapists and officers at Fort Carson, in early 2014, to keep a record of what was happening.
"I spent almost a week listening to all of Eric James' recordings," says Andrew Pogany, CEO of Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group, a legal services nonprofit that Pogany and a colleague created to help soldiers in trouble. "It painted a picture that was mortifying. And horrifying."
After Pogany sent excerpts of the recordings to one of Horoho's advisers, the Army sent investigators to Fort Carson who concluded that two therapists had not treated James "with dignity and respect." The therapists were reprimanded, according to Horoho. But Horoho stressed at a press conference early this year that the investigation did not find evidence that the kind of mistreatment James received was a "systemic" issue.
Yet NPR and CPR found that Army investigators had failed to contact nine current and former troops whom soldiers' rights advocates named to investigators as examples of what they alleged is widespread mistreatment of soldiers with mental health problems and traumatic brain injuries.
An Army spokeswoman confirmed that investigators did not get in touch with any of these soldiers but said investigators reviewed the soldiers' medical records, which convinced them the troops had received proper treatment.
NPR and CPR also obtained the soldiers' records, with their permission, and asked three independent psychiatrists to review them. Two of those psychiatrists served as top medical officers in the military. All three say that based on the records they saw, they would have advised the Army not to kick out these soldiers for misconduct.
"Especially for our soldiers who are coming back, not just with post-traumatic stress disorder, but with traumatic brain injury and other wounds, I really think that we as a society need to take that into account," says Col. Elspeth Ritchie, who served as the Army's top adviser on mental health during some of the worst fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I think as a society, they deserve to have us do everything we can to support them. I absolutely would want them to get the benefit of the doubt."
The Army has never publicly identified Eric James or played any of his recordings in public. James gave NPR and CPR access to them and granted us his first press interviews: