A group of 12 U.S. senators, led by Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., is calling for the Army inspector general to investigate the discharges of tens of thousands of service members diagnosed with mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
The formal letter sent to top Army officials Eric Fanning and Gen. Mark A. Milley was motivated by last week's "Missed Treatment" investigation by NPR's Daniel Zwerdling and Colorado Public Radio's Michael de Yoanna, which revealed that since January 2009, the Army has separated 22,000 soldiers for misconduct after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and were diagnosed with mental health problems such as PTSD or TBI. As a result, many of those soldiers won't receive benefits or have access to the treatment they need.
"I mean the fact that there are 22,000 individuals who had a diagnosis who were then discharged, really suggests that we're only looking at the tip of the iceberg," Murphy tells NPR.
The senators say this violates the intent of a 2009 law that Congress passed to ensure troops who returned from wars with mental health disorders were not discarded without being evaluated.
"I'm not arguing, nor are my colleagues arguing, that you should keep in the military someone who has committed a [driving under the influence] or someone who has committed another serious crime," Murphy says. "We're arguing that you should medically discharge these individuals if that active misconduct is a manifestation of the disability, so they can continue to get help."
In the letter — also signed by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tim Kaine, D-Va. — the senators write:
"We are concerned that it may be easier to discharge service members for minor misconduct — possibly related to mental health issues — than to evaluate them for conditions that may warrant a medical discharge."
The Army confirmed receipt of the letter and "will respond accordingly," says Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman.
The NPR/CPR investigation highlighted the cases of soldiers like Eric James, a sniper who served two tours in Iraq and who secretly recorded 20 hours of conversations with Army therapists and officials at Fort Carson. The Army said it was going to separate him for misconduct on a 2-year-old driving under the influence charge.
A formal investigation in February ordered by the Army's surgeon general found that James was being mistreated and two of James' therapists were reprimanded. James was then given a medical retirement with honor and full benefits.
But that same investigation concluded there wasn't a "systemic " problem at Fort Carson.
The NPR/CPR investigation found that the Army never contacted the nine other soldiers whose cases were brought to the attention of Army officials at the same time as James' case.
An Army spokeswoman confirmed that investigators did not get in touch with any of those soldiers but said investigators reviewed the soldiers' medical records, which convinced them the troops had received proper treatment.
NPR's Jessica Pupovac contributed reporting to this story.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Why has the Army kicked out more than 20,000 soldiers for misconduct since 2009? That's something that 12 U.S. senators are asking the Army inspector general to investigate. These soldiers came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems and traumatic brain injuries. And the new investigation is a result of NPR's reporting last week in collaboration with Colorado Public Radio. NPR's Danny Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: The senators signed a group letter today, and they sent it to the acting secretary of the Army and the Army's top general.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING
CHRIS MURPHY: Dear honorable Fanning and General Milley...
ZWERDLING: That's Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut reading the letter. He organized this effort. The letter calls on the Army's inspector general to find out if thousands of troops were wrongfully dismissed. Murphy read it for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING
MURPHY: ...That the U.S. Army is violating the intent of...
ZWERDLING: The Army got the letter this morning, but the controversy has been simmering for years. NPR and other media started reporting almost 10 years ago that a lot of officers were kicking out soldiers instead of helping them after they came home from the wars with mental health problems. These were soldiers who showed up late for formation or got caught driving drunk. Mental health specialists said that kind of behavior is common among troops who went through trauma. And as a result, Congress passed a law in 2009 that basically told the military, look; you shouldn't just toss out soldiers like that. You have to consider, did the war help trigger their behavior? Since then, nobody has checked how the Army is following that law until now. NPR and Colorado Public Radio learned that since the law went into effect, the Army has kicked out 22,000 soldiers who'd been diagnosed with mental health problems or TBI.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MURPHY: I would argue that the military should err on the side of caution, that if there's a question as to whether that act of misconduct is connected to this disability, they should give the soldiers the benefit of the doubt.
ZWERDLING: We asked Army officials for their reaction to the senator's letter. A spokesman wrote that the Army will, quote, "respond accordingly," unquote. You might think that if anybody would applaud calls for the Army to investigate, it'd be activists who help soldiers when the Army tried to toss them out. But one of the leading advocates denounced what the senators are doing. Andrew Pagani gives soldiers legal services for free under the name Uniformed Services Justice and Advocacy Group.
ANDREW PAGANI: I think giving anything back to the Army or the Department of Defense is a terrible idea because we've been down this road before, and nothing ever changes.
ZWERDLING: Pigani showed us numerous emails that he sent to generals and other top officials over the years. He kept pleading with them to investigate this issue, but he says they didn't follow up.
PAGANI: What really needs to happen - an independent investigation commission or an independence truth commission needs to be stood up in order to get to the bottom of this and to produce results.
ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office has started its own investigation into whether the Army's kicking out soldiers who need help. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.