Booted after battle

Max Fernandez was arrested for a bar fight the first weekend after he came home from Iraq. The Marine Corps machine gunner didn’t think twice about the altercation. 

“Coming back, my mindset was so aggressive,” he says. “I thought it was funny.” 

No one pressed charges and Fernandez’s commanders ignored the incident, he says. He and his buddies continued partying and fighting until Fernandez was booted out of the military, without getting treatment for an IED blast that damaged his vision and hearing – or the nightmares that followed him home from combat.

Today Fernandez is living in a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, undergoing treatment for addiction, pursuing a VA claim for PTSD and TBI, and trying to rebuild his life under the shadow of a bad discharge. It’s the story of thousands of former servicemembers who don’t get help when their combat injuries fuel misconduct. Instead, they are discarded with involuntary discharges that prevent them from receiving military retirement, medical care, disability and GI Bill benefits – all in the interest of speed and cost savings.

“According to current DoD and service branch regulations, it’s permissible to separate servicemembers who have committed misconduct, even if they are suffering from a mental disorder that makes them unfit to serve,” says Thomas Moore, manager of the Lawyers Serving Warriors project at the National Veterans Legal Services Program. “I believe this is a big problem.”

There’s a cultural issue at work, too, says Kathleen Gilberd, executive director of the Military Law Task Force. Sick or injured troops are considered troublemakers simply because they are not fit to deploy. “That means getting rid of them, usually without medical benefits, for misconduct or other designated mental and physical conditions,” she says. 

LIFE SENTENCE Being dismissed from the military leaves an indelible stain on a veteran’s pride – and his or her future. 

“An other-than-honorable discharge usually means something went awry with you in the service,” says Waldo Tapia, an attorney who recently left the Inner City Law Center on Skid Row in Los Angeles and is representing Fernandez. “It’s a difficult stigma to overcome, particularly if it’s tied to PTSD.” 

Civilian jobs are often unavailable once a prospective employer sees a problem discharge on a veteran’s DD-214. 

“If you get caught using drugs at a warehouse job, you might get fired,” Tapia says. “If you get caught using marijuana in the military, the other-than-honorable discharge follows you forever.”

Many of these veterans end up homeless. Many have no access to health care even though VA has the discretion to provide medical benefits on a case-by-case basis. Veterans who are kicked out of the military for misconduct related to PTSD, TBI and other invisible wounds are also excluded from receiving help from many nonprofits, says Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the Code of Support Foundation. 

In other words, the people who most need help often are the least likely to receive it. 

HISTORIC PRACTICE Involuntary discharges have been a volatile issue since at least the Vietnam War. A 1980 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation recommended that servicemembers have the right to a hearing before being tossed out of the military. But the boards that review these 

cases are usually sympathetic to the wishes of commanders eager to get rid of servicemembers, and the servicemembers are often convinced that they are better off if they waive their right to a hearing, Gilberd says. There is also a persistent myth that other-than-honorable discharges are automatically upgraded if servicemembers stay out of trouble for six months after leaving the military, which may give them an incentive not to pursue a hearing that would help their case.

It’s unfair to just blame commanders, who are dealing with the realities of fighting long wars with an all-volunteer force. 

“I get it,” Kaufmann says. “I was a commander’s wife during the surge from ’06 to ’08. I remember the pressure on my husband to have a battalion that is at full strength and ready to deploy.” And similar pressure to get rid of people who aren’t.  

Involuntary discharges again became an issue during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A litany of negative media prompted Congress to order the military to carefully review the combat experiences of servicemembers before discharging them for misconduct. Yet another 22,000 soldiers have been involuntarily discharged since that 2008 legislation was passed, according to an investigation by National Public Radio.  Today the Army Inspector General is conducting its own investigation, again under pressure from Congress.

Involuntary discharges for misconduct are only part of the problem. A significant number of U.S. servicemembers who are discharged for personality disorders or adjustment disorders are also diagnosed with combat-related mental health issues such as PTSD during military medical exams. 

“We’ve reviewed cases where servicemembers have been consistently diagnosed with PTSD, yet one diagnosis of personality disorder results in their administrative separation,” Moore says. “Many are then consistently diagnosed with PTSD by VA examiners after discharge from service.”

Servicemembers separated for personality disorders may receive honorable discharges, but they do not have access to key benefits associated with medical retirement. 

“The most valuable retirement benefit is access to the military’s health-care program, TRICARE, which provides medical care for the veteran and the veteran’s dependents,” Moore says. 

ATTITUDE PROBLEM Servicemembers are reluctant to seek help, even when they know they’ve been injured – particularly when it comes to mental health issues. “There’s a kind of attitude that PTSD is a weakness – that a good soldier, a strong soldier, just works through it,” Gilberd says.

Fernandez is but one example of that attitude. The physician who examined his squad after their armored cargo carrier was hit by an IED near Fallujah in February 2006 recommended they spend a week on light duty as part of their recovery. They refused. “None of the Marines I was with or knew wanted to leave the field,” Fernandez says. “Any injury I had, I had to push out of my mind.”

That attitude is pervasive, Tapia says. “A lot of guys don’t want to report an illness or injury because they worry they will be viewed as holding their unit back.”

As a result, many aren’t diagnosed until they get out of the service, Kaufmann says.

Once back in the United States, Fernandez continued to deny he’d been injured. “I was having nightmares and intrusive thoughts,” he says. “I had the option of seeing people (medical staff), but that would have been frowned upon.”

Instead, Fernandez self-medicated. He and his buddies “drank day and night.” He flunked a random drug test and was stripped of a promotion. But the Marines allowed him to stay after he pleaded his case to a non-judicial punishment board. That is, until he got in yet another fight that left one man in a coma. He went from proud Marine to homeless addict with an other-than-honorable discharge in a matter of months.

“I was bitter,” he says. “Instead of looking at the paperwork – drug abuse – what about the two years that I served? They need to reform the rules and regulations to deal with the epidemic of psychological issues people are coming back with.”

Society shares the blame for the military’s attitude. “I think it’s a complete misunderstanding of PTSD and TBI,” Kaufmann says. “But it’s not just the military. We’re terrible with mental health in this country. We have such a lack of understanding and fear any anything mental health-related.” 

HAZING THE INJURED Fernandez might not have fared any better if he had sought help for his injuries. Servicemembers who seek treatment for PTSD and other mental health issues are often harassed to the point of career-ending misconduct, Gilberd says. 

Michael Wells knows this territory firsthand. He says he encountered hostility at Fort Gordon, Ga., when he sought help for PTSD and TBI following his second tour in Iraq in 2008. His acting first sergeant tried to prevent him from getting mental health treatment; he sneaked off to his psychiatric appointments anyway, he adds. The repercussions escalated.

“He tried to take away my security clearance,” Wells says of the first sergeant. “He threatened me with physical harm.”

Amber Wells, who met her future husband at Fort Gordon during this ordeal, worried Michael would kill himself. “They wouldn’t let him go to the hospital,” she says. “They would say, ‘Real men don’t get PTSD.’”

The first sergeant also blocked his attempts to apply for medical retirement, Wells says. He reported the harassment to a command sergeant major from another unit and the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) without result, he says. Then, finally, he just left Fort Gordon. 

“He had actually gone to his psychiatrist – it’s in his records – and said, ‘If you don’t help me, I’m going AWOL,’” Amber says. “His psychiatrist basically laughed at him.’”

Fort Gordon referred questions about Wells’ case to U.S. Army Medical Command, which did not respond. However, the office of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., confirmed that it is working on the case. 

DISAPPEARING ACT Once he reached the point that he couldn’t look at his uniform, Wells left Fort Gordon and traveled the country until he was certain his unit had dropped him from the rolls. He then turned himself in at Fort Knox, Ky., where he was given an other-than-honorable discharge. He spent the next three years scraping by with Social Security disability and low-income housing while fighting to get help for PTSD, TBI, and neck, back and hip injuries. An Idaho employer fired him when it discovered he had PTSD, on his third day on the job. Other help was off-limits. “There were a lot of outreach programs and veterans services I couldn’t use because I had an other-than-honorable discharge,” Wells says. “We survived on just over $1,000 a month for a couple of years.”  

Amber filed VA disability claims on his behalf and scoured the Internet for help. She connected with Reno, Nev., radio host Boone Cutler and his wife, who raised the money to bring the Wells family and their two children to Reno. There, Michael finally got his first treatment at the local VA, but only after threatening to kill himself.

“It took me getting hospitalized for PTSD, survivor’s guilt and suicidal thoughts,” he says. 

Cutler also connected Michael with Heller, whose staff was instrumental in getting his discharge upgraded to general under honorable conditions because of his PTSD. And VA eventually granted Wells a 90 percent disability rating for PTSD and hip problems. Today, he and his family are living in Texas, where he is undergoing a series of hip
surgeries. Heller’s office is helping him pursue a 100-percent disability rating.

It’s been an arduous and dispiriting journey, Amber says. “Even after you fight for your country, you have to come home and fight for your benefits,” she says. But they believe Michael’s case shows that with persistence and the right advocate, other servicemembers can overcome a bad discharge. 

“It took five years,” he says. “But I want other soldiers to know that it’s possible. No matter what, keep trying.”  

 

Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.