U.S.

Is the Army silencing those who intervene in questionable discharges?

A downsizing Army is discharging more soldiers for misconduct — and, some say, retaliating against those who cry foul

John Bettencourt the day he was discharged from the Army for misconduct. The discharge on such grounds meant Bettencourt, who was injured in Afghanistan, was ineligible for medical benefits.
Dave Philipps

FORT CARSON, Colo. — John Bettencourt, an infantry soldier who served two tours in Afghanistan, tested positive for marijuana at the military base here in 2012. Drug use is against Army rules, and though the soldier went to drug treatment programs and never had another positive test, he was told he’d be kicked out for misconduct.

But Bettencourt had suffered head injuries in a truck bombing in Afghanistan that, he said, had left him sleepless, depressed and suffering from debilitating headaches. He appealed for medical help and for further evaluation that would have made him eligible for medical care and possibly disability benefit checks. He enlisted the help of two soldier advocates to make his case, went to a brain-injury doctor who told commanders the soldier needed medical attention, and contacted an Army hospital ombudsman who tried to stop the discharge.

The Army kicked him out anyway. And then local commanders fired the doctor, banned the advocates from the military base and opened two investigations into the hospital ombudsman. (The Army said that it followed procedures and that soldiers need to be held responsible for their actions.)

Bettencourt, who was decorated for valor in combat, left Fort Carson with no medical benefits and a lifetime ban on access to health care through the Veterans Administration. He even owed the Army $120 because he was kicked out before his enlistment was up. At last contact, five months ago, he was living in an abandoned trailer in Arizona with no water or electricity.

“This is how they treat us, even after we risk our lives,” he said. “And the only people that tried to help, the Army went after them.”

The Army is kicking out more soldiers for misconduct than ever before. Congress has ordered the military to cut 80,000 troops now that a decade of war is winding down; in the four years since 2009, the number of misconduct discharges rose annually by more than 25 percent Army-wide. At the eight Army posts that house most of the service's combat units, which include Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, misconduct discharges have surged 67 percent since 2009. All told, more than 76,000 soldiers have been forced out of the Army this way since 2006.

Army regulations require that wounded soldiers who run afoul of the rules be protected. Soldiers must be discharged through medical channels that would provide them with medical care and disability payments if their misconduct is caused by behavior-altering injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder. But often, say people who watch these cases, troops are discharged for misconduct instead because doing so on medical grounds can take more than a year and prevents the military, in the meantime, from being able to replace them with new, healthy troops. When people try to speak up for wounded soldiers, interviews suggest, the Army can act swiftly to silence them.

I broke the unwritten rule. Don’t tell on Fort Carson.

Sylvia Dominguez

For example, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, Russel Hicks, a longtime Army psychiatrist, was suspended in 2013 after providing Army investigators, Congress and The Seattle Times with information suggesting that the Army was reversing hundreds of PTSD diagnoses and denying benefits to wounded soldiers. The Army said it suspended him because he kept sloppy records and sometimes prescribed drugs for soldiers outside the scope of psychiatry.

In a letter to Lewis-McChord’s hospital credential committee protesting his suspension, Hicks said that no one at the hospital ever complained to him about his practices and that he believed the Army's actions were retaliatory. The Army moved him to a windowless office where he sits, unable to see patients, while the allegations against him are investigated. The process has been going on for more than a year. The Army did not respond to requests for information about Hicks’ case.

Former employees with two civilian nonprofit organizations that help soldiers at Fort Carson, meanwhile, say they were fired for speaking out about mistreatment of troubled soldiers. They believe the organizations were worried that the employees’ outspoken behavior could threaten the groups’ relationships with the Army.

Army Reserve Sgt. Maj. Michael Chumbler worked in 2012 for AspenPointe, a social services group in Colorado Springs that helps veterans find jobs. In a speech to local civilian groups, Chumbler criticized the Army for “throwing soldiers out without the care they deserved.”

A few weeks later, he says, he was fired.

“It cost me my job,” he said of his speech. “AspenPointe relies on working with Fort Carson.”

Sylvia Dominguez worked as a care coordinator for Operation TBI Freedom, another Colorado Springs organization that connects wounded veterans with social services. In May 2012, she assisted a wounded soldier at Fort Carson who was about to be discharged from the military and who, she said, had turned suicidal. Dominguez told a Pentagon official about the soldier. When word got back to Fort Carson, she said, officials there called Operation TBI Freedom. The next day she was fired.

“I broke the unwritten rule,” she said. “Don’t tell on Fort Carson.”

Operation TBI Freedom and AspenPointe declined to comment, saying they could not speak about personnel issues.

Former Army Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, a post traumatic stress disorder advocate and spokesman, at his home in Denver. In April 2005, Pogany was medically retired from the Army, with full benefits. (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)
Former Army Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, a post-traumatic stress disorder advocate and spokesman, was medically retired from the Army in 2005 with full benefits.
Barry Gutierrez/AP

Bettencourt’s case, in particular, seems to suggest the lengths to which the Army will go to stop people from interfering in its discharge process.

A housepainter from Rhode Island who said he joined the Army because he felt his country needed him, Bettencourt served as an infantry soldier during the surge in Afghanistan in 2010. During one of several firefights he survived while overseas, a massive truck bomb attack slammed his head against the side of his armored truck. When he returned to the United States in 2011, he had nightmares, anger, dizziness, memory lapses and headaches strong enough to make him vomit, according to Army medical records.

After he made a visit to the Fort Carson hospital, the Army prescribed antidepressants and other drugs that are used off-label to treat traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. But Bettencourt was told that he did not have TBI or PTSD, conditions that would have protected him from a misconduct discharge. Instead, medical records show, Army medical staff said he had adjustment disorder and nightmare disorder. These conditions were not caused by combat, the Army said, and therefore did not qualify for medical discharge.

In January 2012, during a regular screening of all soldiers in his company, Bettencourt tested positive for marijuana. A soldier with a clean record, he said he had been drinking and accidentally ate a marijuana brownie belonging to his wife, who is a legal medical marijuana user in Colorado.

In May 2012, to comply with requirements that compel the Army to screen soldiers for injuries before discharging them for misconduct, Fort Carson medical personnel evaluated Bettencourt for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Army ruled that his headaches and nightmares did not meet the threshold of injury to be medically retired. He was cleared for discharge.

But Bettencourt was at the same time assigned a defense lawyer by the Army. In October 2013, the lawyer referred him to a pair of civilian soldier advocates, Georg-Andreas Pogany and Robert Alvarez. Both men had served in the military and for the last half-dozen years had devoted their time, pro bono, to helping advocate for service members.

Pogany and Alvarez spotted what they said were red flags in Bettencourt’s files. A physician’s assistant, not a doctor, ruled that Bettencourt’s brain injury was not serious enough to warrant further medical evaluation, they said. That was a violation of Army regulations.

The advocates also learned that the psychiatrist who ruled that Bettencourt did not have PTSD, Stephen Knorr, had a checkered history. Knorr, the former Fort Carson chief of behavioral health, left the job after a 2007 memo he authored — which described soldiers with behavioral problems as “dead wood” and said they should be quickly kicked out — was obtained by the media. Knorr returned to Carson in 2012 as a civilian doctor.

Pogany and Alvarez said they asked Bettencourt’s commanders for a second medical opinion, but the commanders refused. The Army declined to make the commanders available for comment.

I thought we had saved him. I went home happy.

Robert Alvarez

Soldier advocate

Ivan Covas
Dr. Ivan Covas helped to create Fort Carson's Traumatic Brain Injury clinic.
Bryan Oller/AP

Days before Bettencourt was scheduled to be discharged, the advocates suggested he make an appointment for a second opinion at Fort Carson’s Traumatic Brain Injury clinic.

Bettencourt met with Dr. Ivan Covas, a brain injury specialist who had helped establish Fort Carson’s screening program for traumatic brain injuries. The soldier explained to Covas that he was still experiencing headaches, depression and memory loss. Covas said he believed Bettencourt had all the symptoms of a brain injury and recommended further evaluation.

On Oct. 29, 2012, the doctor wrote a letter to Fort Carson’s commanders saying Bettencourt had an injury that was worsening over time. “The soldier should not be cleared for any (disciplinary) action until all of this is in a stable or resolved condition,” wrote Covas. “We owe this to this military member since his injury happened while he was serving and defending the country.”

Bettencourt told the advocates about Covas’ letter. Alvarez then called Henry Yates, a medical ombudsman at the Fort Carson hospital who served as an independent watchdog of medical issues. Yates called the office that oversaw discharges and said the Army needed to halt Bettencourt’s discharge until the commanding general’s staff could see the letter. In the meantime, Bettencourt should be re-evaluated by another Army doctor, Yates said.

Bettencourt, who was filling out discharge paperwork at the time, was told by the office staff to stop what he was doing and proceed to the soldier processing office for a medical evaluation. Alvarez, who said he was with the soldier at the time, walked with him to the doctor’s office. (Pogany said he was home that day, in Denver.) The doctor reviewed Bettencourt’s records and said he needed a full physical before he could be discharged.

“I thought we had saved him,” said Alvarez. “I went home happy.”

But the next day, Bettencourt was discharged for misconduct. He said he was still struggling with headaches, nightmares, vertigo and nausea.  

We owe this to this military member since his injury happened while he was ... defending the country.

Dr. Ivan Covas

Brain injury specialist

Yates, the ombudsman, was moved not long afterward from his private office at the hospital to a cubicle in another building. The Army opened two investigations into his work, one for improperly interfering in Bettencourt’s discharge and the second for incorrectly claiming he had orders from the commanding general of Fort Carson to stop the discharge. Yates denies both charges, saying he was just doing his job.

The Army meanwhile banned Pogany and Alvarez from Fort Carson for being “disruptive to good order and discipline,” according to a letter they received notifying them of the ban. The advocates say they received no further clarification in writing about what they had done wrong.

In a 2013 interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette, Carson’s top general at the time, Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson, said the advocates had physically separated Bettencourt from an Army escort, claiming they worked on Anderson’s behalf. “That will not be tolerated,” said Anderson. “They are not trustworthy, honest people.”

He said the advocates “know exactly what they did, no bulls--- about ‘We are confused.’ They physically and personally interfered with the separation of a soldier. And they lie.”

Alvarez and Pogany deny that they interfered in Bettencourt’s case. Alvarez said he merely escorted Bettencourt around on his last day on post. Pogany said he wasn’t even present on the day he is accused of being disruptive.

There is no one there to watch them. They have gotten rid of us, and they can now do whatever they want.

Georg-Andreas Pogany

Soldier advocate

Six months after Pogany and Alvarez were banned, Covas was fired.

The Army said he was terminated because in his free time he took soldiers to “life coaching” retreats, in violation of professional ethics. But Covas said he had been openly taking soldiers to the retreats, run by a nonprofit called SOS at Zac’s Ridge, since 2010.

Emails he provided to Al Jazeera suggest his superiors had known about the retreats since 2012, when an Army psychologist raised concerns about the retreats to Covas’ superiors, and Covas spoke to his superiors. According to him and to emails provided to Al Jazeera, no one told him to stop taking soldiers on retreats.

It wasn’t until a year later, after his involvement with Bettencourt and a second soldier Fort Carson sought to discharge, that the Army base looked again at the retreats. In April 2013, while Covas was on vacation, he said, the Fort Carson hospital’s ethics committee held a hearing concerning him, unbeknownst to Covas, and decided that a doctor taking soldiers to life-coaching retreats was a breach of ethics. The committee never spoke to him or any of the soldiers who went on the retreats, Covas said. It voted to fire him.

“They just were looking for a reason to get rid of me, and they found one,” Covas said.

Covas said he appealed to the colonel in charge of the ethics committee, Thomas Rogers, but said Rogers agreed with the Army decision and terminated his contract. Rogers, who declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman that Covas was terminated because “his services were no longer needed” and it had “nothing to do with John Bettencourt and Andrew Pogany.”

The Army said it has regulations in place to protect soldiers, and that no soldiers are unfairly discharged. It said checks and balances exist in the disciplinary system to catch abuses.

But Pogany and others say those checks aren’t enough, that the Army needs to allow independent watchdogs like him access to soldiers. “There is no one there to watch them,” he said. “They have gotten rid of us, and they can now do whatever they want.”

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