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After three combat tours, Sgt. Dennis Tackett was kicked out of the Army for punching a man in the face while drunk. It didn’t matter that he had been diagnosed with PTSD (by the Army) and had tried to get help (from the Army) for the drinking it led to. It didn’t matter that he was in the late stages of a medical discharge that would get him out soon anyway — with benefits. What mattered to the commanding general at Fort Carson, Colo., who spoke to him that day in November 2012 was that he had tried to fight the discharge with the help of a pair of civilian watchdogs, Georg-Andreas Pogany and Robert Alvarez.
“If you had not gotten involved with those advocates, it would have gone differently,” Tackett remembers the commander, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, telling him. Anderson is now commander of Fort Bragg, N.C.
A recording obtained by Al Jazeera America suggests Tackett and soldiers like him were retaliated against because of an increasingly rancorous relationship between commanders at Fort Carson and the civilian advocates.
Listen to the phone call
Anderson, who, according to Tackett and as confirmed in the recording, kicked out soldiers for going to the advocates, says the charge is “simply not true.”
“No Soldiers were ever punished due to their association with anyone,” said Anderson, who was commander of Fort Carson until March 2013.
“Cases were only dealt with based on the evidence associated with what the Soldiers did on their own,” he told Al Jazeera in an email from Afghanistan, where he is deployed.
The recording, which is just over two minutes long, suggests that at Fort Carson, Anderson made decisions based on factors other than law.
The recording begins with Sgt. Maj. Mark Cook, the top enlisted soldier in Fort Carson’s Staff Judge Advocate Office, which oversees misconduct discharges.
Cook had clashed repeatedly with the advocates in the previous year as they tried to appeal his office’s efforts to kick soldiers out.
A few months before the recording was made, Cook was instrumental in getting the two advocates banned from Fort Carson for being “disruptive to the good order and discipline” of the post.
In response, the advocates appealed the decision to top levels of the Army and Congress, saying the accusations were baseless and the ban was designed to keep them from intervening in wrongful discharges. Now Cook was searching for evidence to justify the ban.
“Who in your office is providing records to Pogany and Alvarez? ’Cause that’s illegal,” Cook says at the start of the recording, speaking to an unidentified woman at Fort Carson’s hospital who seems to be crying.
The full context of the conversation, and who provided it to Al Jazeera, is not known, but based on details of the conversation and the date the file was created, it likely took place in March 2013.
Cook tells the woman he can make sure no one sees her sworn statement against the advocates other than a few commanders, and might be able to arrange that the woman’s name doesn’t appear on the statement at all, but he needs her to give a statement.
The sergeant major, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera in an email statement that the recording was part of a “20+ minute” phone conversation, but declined to elaborate.
But this statement is, it will be almost like the nail in the coffin for these guys.
Sgt. Maj. Mark Cook
In the recording, Cook tells the woman her statement will “help a lot” because he has to answer questions from Congress, the Army’s inspector general and top generals, and “we never actually caught them. Well, one time, I got one other statement from somebody that they told them to drool. Somebody witnessed them telling a patient to drool so that they have to keep you in the mental hospital. That’s the other statement I have other than yours. But this statement is, it will be almost like the nail in the coffin for these guys.”
Pogany and Alvarez denied that they had told anyone to drool, calling the idea “ridiculous,” and said they have no need to illegally obtain Army medical records because soldiers they help have access to their own records and provide them willingly.
“And these guys are bad, right, they are not good guys?” the woman asks in the recording.
“Yeah,” Cook replies. “I can give you an example of one case when the [commanding general] met with the soldier after he discharged the soldier, and the general, General Anderson, told the soldier, ‘If you would have brought this stuff to the attention of the command beforehand instead of approaching it the way you did with these advocates, you probably would have been able to stay in the Army.’”
“Really?” the woman asks.
“Yes, and that is straight — I witnessed that from General Anderson,” Cook says.
At that point the recording ends.
In his statement, Cook said he was not implying soldiers were kicked out for associating with the advocates.
“The gist of what I said in that conversation is that if Soldiers with legitimate issues explained their misconduct to their chain of command to seek resolution, this matter would likely have helped their situation. Instead, they chose to use two individuals who were outside their chain of command as their ombudsmen, which may have negatively affected the outcome of their case,” he said in his statement.
The advocates disagree.
“It’s absolutely outrageous,” Pogany said when he heard the recording. “Essentially what they are admitting is they punished soldiers for asking us for help.”
What happened to Tackett seems to show in practice what is expressed in the recording: how the advocates tried to intercede for a veteran being mistreated by the system and how commanders responded.
They were deliberately trying to derail the process.
Tackett joined the Army at 19 and was soon deployed to Afghanistan, where he was assigned as a prison guard. He came home a year later having seen things that stole his ability to sleep, made him edgy and withdrawn, and left him trying to fill a hole in his life that seemed to have no bottom. Medical records show the Army diagnosed him with PTSD and gave him medication, but no other treatment.
He was deployed again, to Iraq, in 2007 as a drug dog handler and a third time in 2009 as a handler for a bomb-sniffing dog at a checkpoint.
“I was never blown up, I was never in a firefight. I got lucky,” said Tackett, 29. “But the fear was always there. Especially at the checkpoints. You were always on super alert.”
Tackett got married and had two kids between deployments, but he also struggled. Army medical records show he complained of being angry and numb, and could not sleep. Records show he reported drinking too much on a number of Army health evaluations, but he was never referred to alcohol abuse classes.
Depending on the doctor, the Army said he had depression, PTSD or a disorder similar to PTSD but with a shorter duration, called adjustment disorder. They put him on antidepressant, antipsychotic and sleep drugs. He started seeing a civilian psychologist.
Still, he said, his symptoms and drinking persisted.
In February 2011, while drunk, he punched a civilian he barely knew for no reason, breaking the man’s nose. He had never been in trouble before. Not even a traffic ticket. He was arrested for assault, pleaded guilty to a felony, but served no jail time, and was told he would be kicked out of the Army with no benefits.
A few months later he opened all his Army-issued medicine bottles and downed as many pills as he could in the hope that he would never wake up.
He didn’t die. He crawled into bed with his wife, and when she couldn’t wake up her limp, sallow husband in the morning, she called 911.
After his suicide attempt Tackett was put in a civilian psychiatric hospital, where doctors diagnosed him again with PTSD. The Army ignored it.
For the Army, a diagnosis of PTSD would likely mean Tackett would not be kicked out for the assault because he would instead qualify for a medical discharge — a long and costly process.
Records show Fort Carson downgraded Tackett’s diagnosis to adjustment disorder, which is considered the fault of the soldier (failure to adjust), not the fault of the Army (a wound of war), so it would allow him to be kicked out.
I gave a lot for this country. And to have it all come down to something like this. It makes me furious.
Sgt. Dennis Tackett
That is where Pogany and Alvarez got involved. An Army Trial Defense Service lawyer referred Tackett to the two advocates, and he called them. The pair reviewed Tackett’s records, which showed years of symptoms and diagnoses of PTSD before his diagnosis was downgraded to adjustment disorder. They took the case to the head of the behavioral health department at Fort Carson, saying that if it wasn’t corrected, they would alert the Army surgeon general’s office.
“He raised his hands and basically said, ‘OK, you caught us, but let’s not take anything to the surgeon general’s office,’” Pogany said.
The doctor agreed to have Tackett reassessed.
The Army psychiatrist who reassessed the soldier determined he had PTSD, but said it was not bad enough to require a medical discharge.
The advocates appealed again and had the soldier evaluated by another military psychiatrist, who reviewed all his records and gave a final ruling. In a strongly worded letter, the doctor said Tackett had been showing symptoms of PTSD since 2007 and repeated attempts to downgrade the diagnosis to adjustment disorder were “misleading.” He concluded that the soldier had chronic PTSD severe enough to qualify for medical discharge with benefits.
Commanding generals who oversee discharges have the authority to choose between discharging a wounded soldier who is in trouble through a medical discharge or a misconduct discharge. A medical discharge comes with a pension and lifetime health care. A misconduct discharge usually comes with nothing. Army regulations stress that generals should give preference to medical discharges. But it doesn’t always happen.
In September 2012, the advocates sent an email to Fort Carson’s commanding general, saying they were concerned that the post’s legal staff, including Cook, were illegally interfering in the discharge process for soldiers by not taking into account soldiers’ medical records. They asked that he look into the matter.
When the legal office at Fort Carson, overseen by Cook, sent Tackett’s case to Anderson later that month, the office did not include any of the information on his PTSD evaluation, Pogany said, adding, “They were deliberately trying to derail the process.”
The general, seeing the assault in the paperwork, but not the PTSD and suicide attempt, chose to discharge the soldier for misconduct.
Tackett met with the general in the fall of 2012. It is not common for soldiers getting kicked out of the Army to meet with the commanding general, but he hoped he could explain his PTSD and persuade Anderson to reconsider. In a brief conversation, Tackett said, the general told him he needed to own up to his decisions, and his PTSD didn’t force him to drink or hit someone.
Tackett said he replied that he had owned up. He was getting counseling and had not had a drink since, but the general said it was too late. Maybe if he had not gone running to the advocates, he would not be in this situation.
Anderson gave Tackett a general discharge, which denied him any Army pension and meant he would spend a year trying to get VA benefits. A few months later he was working at a car wash, afraid of losing his house.
“All I did, all I went through, how the Army never helped me when I was asking for help, I just don’t understand,” Tackett said. “I gave a lot for this country. And to have it all come down to something like this. It makes me furious.”
Pogany and Alvarez still try to help soldiers but now do it secretly.
“We realized we were having a negative effect on outcomes even before we heard the recording,” said Pogany. “They want to get us, and so they punish the soldier.”
The two estimated that they worked openly with about 40 soldiers while Anderson was Fort Carson’s commander.
“I hope someone reviews all the discharges under Anderson,” Pogany said. “We need to know if they were just.”