The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a generation of American veterans with physical or psychological ailments. Their care isn’t always up to that lofty standard. The stories about poor conditions at VA hospitals come to mind. Over the last few years, investigative journalist Joshua Kors has been writing about the care American servicemen and women receive, particularly as they’re discharged. Kors reports for The Nation magazine, which has just published his latest article in a series arguing that soldiers have been deliberately misdiagnosed by military doctors in order to deny them medical care and disability pay. Marco Werman talks with Kors. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a generation of American veterans with physical and psychological ailments. They require, and national leaders insist, they deserve the best care the United States can offer. But that care isn’t always up to that lofty standard. The stories about poor conditions at VA hospitals come to mind. Over the last few years, investigative journalist Joshua Kors has been writing about the care American service men and women receive, particularly as they are discharged. Kors reports for The Nation magazine, which has just published his latest article in a series arguing that soldiers have been deliberately misdiagnosed by military doctors in order to deny them medical care and disability pay. Joshua Kors, this latest story focuses on a veteran, Sergeant Chuck Luther. He was deployed to Iraq and your story makes a series of pretty extraordinary accusations about his treatment by fellow soldiers. What does Sgt. Luther say happened to him?
JOSHUA KORS: Sure. Well they’re not accusations. This was two years of combing through the medical records kept by his doctor, confirmation from his commander who was there to watch his treatment, and from others who came to visit him while he was in confinement. Sgt. Luther had been wounded by mortar fire while serving in Iraq. Slammed his head against the concrete and ended up with severe traumatic brain injury. The headaches resulting from that blow to the head caused blindness, his vision to shut off in one eye. He said the other eye felt like someone was stabbing him in the eye with a knife. He went to the aid station to get care for that, but they told him that his blindness was caused by a personality disorder. He thought that was ridiculous, how could a problem with his personality cause blindness? But Marco, this is part of a larger story. For the last three years I’ve been reporting on wounded soldiers, pressed into signing these papers saying they have a personality disorder.
WERMAN: Let me just jump in there a second Joshua, because personality disorder, we should say, is a recognized condition or class of conditions that tends to emerge in childhood. And the military treats PD as a pre-existing condition rather than a result of combat.
KORS: That’s right. Personality disorder is a real mental illness that emerges in childhood. Of course, this was a soldier in his late 30′s who had passed through eight screenings, served for a dozen years and won 22 medals for his performance. It was only after he was wounded by mortar fire that this pre-existing condition was discovered. I think most Americans know the phrase pre-existing condition now from the health care wars. Pre-existing means you could be locked out of the insurance system. It’s the same in the military. If your wounds can be linked to a pre-existing condition, that means no disability pay for the rest of your life, no long term medical care and, one of the small print conditions of a personality disorder discharge is that these wounded soldiers have to give back a slice of their signing bonus. That means that Sgt. Luther, like tens of thousands of other wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, were given a bill on their final day in uniform.
WERMAN: If we get back to Sgt. Luther’s story now, it doesn’t end with that diagnosis of PD, it’s also the way he says he was pressured to accept the diagnosis, that’s pretty shocking.
KORS: That’s right. Sgt. Luther was put in a closet and held there for over a month under enforced sleep deprivation with the lights on all night, blasting heavy metal music at him all through the night, but when he tried to escape the closet they pinned him down, injected him with sleeping medication and dragged him back to the closet. Finally, at the end of a month, he was willing to sign anything and he did. He went ahead, signed papers saying that he had a pre-existing personality disorder. They flew him back to Fort Hood, and that’s when they let him know the repercussions of that discharge. No disability pay for the rest of your life, no long term medical care, and here’s a bill for $1,500.00.
WERMAN: How has the Pentagon reacted to the story? And how does the Army see Sgt. Luther’s case in particular?
KORS: Well, the Army’s been fine with it. These are not accusations, his doctors documented his treatment in meticulous detail in stacks of papers. I interviewed a fellow soldier who came to visit him while he was there in confinement in the closet. I talked to his commander who described for me why they treated him as they did. They even allowed Sgt. Luther to keep his backpack, which had his digital camera. He took photos of the closet that he was stuck in for that month.
WERMAN: Your investigation shows that Sgt. Luther isn’t the only one in this situation. You found at least 24 cases like his from Army bases around the country. If so many have gone through the same routine, why has there been no action or reaction from the military on this?
KORS: It’s a much larger problem than just 24. Since 2001, 22,600 soldiers have been booted out of the military with personality disorder. Taking those wounded soldiers and sliding them out the side door with that mental illness is saving the military 12.5 billion dollars in disability and medical care. And that is why, then Senator Barack Obama was so up in arms about this issue. Along with Republican Senator Kid Bond, he put forward a bill to halt personality disorder discharges. That made him both a hero and a disappointment to so many veterans. A hero because he was addressing this critical issue; a disappointment because during his Presidential run, and now from the White House, he hasn’t spoken at all about personality disorder. The result was that the issue sort of withered on the vine. A lot of people on Capital Hill didn’t understand what was happening and were afraid that blocking these discharges would open a flood gates to benefits for wounded soldiers. And so what they did is they watered down the bill, put it into an amendment, which was part of a spending bill signed by President Bush. The amendment required the Pentagon to study personality disorder discharges and five months later, when that report landed on Obama’s desk, the Pentagon concluded that not a single soldier had been wrongly diagnosed and not a single soldier had been wrongly discharged.
WERMAN: Joshua, where is, and how is Sgt. Chuck Luther right now?
KORS: Luther’s has an amazing recovery. He’s gone from being a medal winning soldier, to essentially a captive, and now, today, after all his wounds, he’s one of the nation’s leading veteran’s advocates. He started an organization called Wounded Warriors, which is out there helping other soldiers like him, who have been wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, then denied benefits.
WERMAN: Joshua, thanks very much, good to speak with you.
KORS: Thank you.
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