Gazette Excerpt: Injured In War, Punished At Home
For wounded veterans with other-than-honorable discharges, the “unbreakable covenant” of government care is cut, leaving them helpless.
Disposable: Surge In Discharges Includes Wounded Soldiers
Kash Alvaro stared at the ceiling of an emergency room in January listening to the beep of an EKG monitor for what he guessed was the 80th time in 12 months. The once-healthy 24-year-old Afghanistan war veteran had collapsed in a hallway that night, then awakened confused in an ambulance and lurched up in alarm, swinging and yelling until the paramedics held him down and injected sedatives. Now he lay alone in a room at Memorial Hospital, quietly weeping.
Alvaro joined the Army at age 18 in 2008. In Afghanistan in 2009, he was hit by multiple bomb blasts, including one that threw him across a road like a lawn dart. Sophisticated armor helped him escape with just bruises, but the blasts battered his brain. Ever since, he has been hit with fainting, heart spasms and seizures.
Alvaro is in many ways the typical modern disabled veteran. He survived combat with barely a scratch but later was diagnosed with what have become the most common wounds of a decade of war — traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, which together likely affect more than half a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
<strong>"I had given the Army everything, and they took everything away." </strong>
What happened when he came home is increasingly typical, too. At Fort Carson, the damaged soldier racked up punishments for being late to formation, missing appointments, getting in an argument and not showing up for work. These behaviors can be symptoms of TBI and PTSD, and Army doctors recommended Alvaro go to a special battalion for wounded warriors. Instead, his battalion put him in jail, then threw him out of the Army with an other-than-honorable discharge that stripped him of veterans benefits. He was sent packing without even the medicine to stop his convulsions.
“It was like my best friend betrayed me,” Alvaro said at the hospital, his speech as slow as cold oil. “I had given the Army everything, and they took everything away.”
After the longest period of war in American history, more soldiers are being discharged for misconduct than at any time in recent history, and soldiers with the most combat exposure are the hardest hit. A Gazette investigation based on data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows the annual number of misconduct discharges is up more than 25 percent Army-wide since 2009, mirroring the rise in wounded. At the eight Army posts that house most of the service’s combat units, including Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, discharges have surged 67 percent. All told, more than 76,000 soldiers have been kicked out of the Army since 2006. They end up in cities large and small across the country, in hospitals and homeless shelters, abandoned trailers and ratty apartments, working in gas fields and at the McDonald’s counter. The Army does not track how many, like Alvaro, were kicked out with combat wounds.
“I can tell you that 10-plus years of war has placed significant stress on many of our service members, sometimes manifesting itself in their health and even their discipline,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But he disagreed that the military is using minor misconduct to discharge veterans, saying, “We go to great lengths to try to rehabilitate those who don’t meet or maintain required standards prior to initiating separation.”
It doesn’t take serious misconduct to be discharged and lose a lifetime of benefits. The Gazette found troops cut loose for small offenses that the Army acknowledges can be symptoms of TBI and PTSD. Soldiers can miss formation a handful of times or smoke marijuana once. Some were discharged for showing up late or missing appointments. Some tested positive once for drugs, then were deployed to combat zones because the Army needed the troops, only to be discharged for the drug offense when they returned.
One two-tour infantry soldier was targeted for discharge after missing three doctor appointments because he had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital for being suicidal.
This excerpt is part of a special series by Dave Philipps and published by the Colorado Springs Gazette. It is republished here with permission.