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.
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.”
Photos (from top): Eric James with his mother, Beverly Morris, and father, Robert James. Eric secretly recorded more than 20 hours of sessions he had with behavioral health specialists and Army officials; Michael de Yoanna/Colorado Public Radio. James Vanni, at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo. Vanni was dismissed from the Army without benefits; Theo Stroomer for NPR. Larry Morrison, who is appealing the Army’s decision to dismiss him for misconduct; Michael de Yoanna/Colorado Public Radio