STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This next story raises a question. It's what we as a country owe to American veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and develop mental health issues. Last year, NPR and Colorado Public Radio revealed the Army was kicking out many such veterans. More than 22,000 soldiers were discharged for misconduct, even though they had mental health problems or brain injuries. A dozen U.S. senators protested. The Army then agreed to its own investigation. And now NPR News has obtained the Army's report. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling says instead of settling the controversy, it's generating a new one.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: The Army delivers its conclusion at the top of the report, quote, "the Army remains confident," unquote, in the way that commanders kick out soldiers for misconduct. But some of the senators who demanded that report say Army officials still don't get it, like Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
CHRIS MURPHY: I don't think the Army understands the scope of this problem. And I don't think they've conveyed the seriousness to get it right.
ZWERDLING: I should say before we go on that we asked the secretary of the Army for an interview - that's Eric Fanning - he declined. The Army wouldn't give us an interview with other top officials, either. The Army's conclusion - things are fine - is based on a narrow legal argument. Officials say when they kicked out those 22,000 wounded soldiers, they did not break a law that Congress passed in 2009.
And here's the background. Members of Congress had been upset that commanders were kicking out soldiers for misconduct instead of realizing that the soldiers had mental health injuries that helped trigger that misconduct, things like drunk driving or talking back to an officer.
So Congress passed the law. It said before commanders kick somebody out, they have to consider two things. First, has the soldier been diagnosed with brain injuries or PTSD? And second, has the soldier fought in the wars within the previous two years? Well, the Army says that only about 3,300 troops met that test out of more than 22,000 they kicked out. So the other 19,000 troops don't count.
JUDITH BRODER: I just don't believe it. It's not - it actually is - literally when I say I don't believe it, I mean it's unbelievable.
ZWERDLING: That's Judith Broder, founder of The Soldiers Project. It's a network of hundreds of psychotherapists and others who help troops and their families. President Obama gave her the Presidential Citizens Medal for this work. Broder says, the fine print on the law is one thing. But if the army genuinely wants to help wounded troops, then their report makes zero medical sense. For one thing, PTSD and brain injuries are just a small part of the problem.
BRODER: It's mind boggling to exclude people because they don't have one of those two diagnoses. Our experience at The Soldiers Project is that at least half, maybe more than that, of the people who call us with mental health problems following their service have anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol problems, all of which directly flow from their experiences in combat.
ZWERDLING: And, in fact, we got Army records under the Freedom of Information Act. They showed that, sure enough, most of the 22,000 troops they kicked out for misconduct had been diagnosed with illnesses like anxiety disorder or depression. And Senator Murphy says, how can the Army argue that mental health injuries don't matter just because the soldier fought in the wars more than two years before they got kicked out?
MURPHY: What we know is that PTSD and other disorders and conditions that arise from military service often don't rear their ugly head until two or three or four years later. And what a moral injustice it continues to be to have so many soldiers with mental illnesses and brain injuries connected to their service who are being discharged and made ineligible.
ZWERDLING: And that brings us to the next part of the Army's report. Our stories last year revealed that many, if not most, of the 22,000 soldiers lost some or all of their benefits as a result of getting kicked out. But the Army said just now that to the contrary, getting kicked out did not hurt most of those troops at all. The report states that 88 percent of the soldiers they examined actually got kicked out, quote, "under honorable conditions," unquote. So those soldiers were immediately eligible for benefits.
COLBY VOKEY: I think that claim is completely misleading.
ZWERDLING: That's Colby Vokey. He used to be one of the top lawyers in the Marine Corps. Now he's in private practice. And you practically need to be a lawyer to catch how the Army's claim is misleading. When the report states that most of those soldiers got kicked out under honorable conditions, it sounds like the soldiers got the best discharge you can get. It's called an honorable discharge. You get all the benefits the Army has to offer. But there's another kind of discharge called a general discharge under honorable conditions. It sounds pretty much the same.
VOKEY: It may sound that way on paper but it has a very negative effect.
ZWERDLING: If you get a general discharge under honorable conditions, you get access to medical care at the VA but you lose your education benefits under the GI Bill. So you can't get money to go to school. Plus, a lot of employers won't hire you.
VOKEY: I have a client right now who's a soldier. He wants to get into law enforcement or corrections. He's applied to a number of police departments. And because of the general discharge, they won't hire him.
ZWERDLING: So we asked the Army. How many of the soldiers who you say got separated under honorable conditions actually got the general discharge which carries a stigma? The Army sent us the answer. Ninety-six percent got the negative discharge. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon says maybe Congress needs to pass a tougher law.
RON WYDEN: The bottom line for me is that the Congress still has work to do to ensure that our soldiers who are facing mental health challenges and have been kicked out of the Army get a fair shake.
ZWERDLING: Secretary Eric Fanning told the senators that as a result of this investigation, commanders will have to certify from now on that they've considered soldiers' mental health before they kick them out for misconduct. Fanning added that Army investigators did identify 73 soldiers who might have been kicked out unfairly. Officials will review those cases. I asked Senator Chris Murphy about that number - 73 soldiers.
MURPHY: Yeah. No, the number is clearly not 73. The problem is much bigger than that.
ZWERDLING: 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.