By DAVID TARRANT, SCOTT FRIEDMAN AND EVA PARKS
Published 20 February 2015 11:15 PM by The Dallas Morning News.
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The Army has ordered an investigation into allegations of harassment and mistreatment inside the Fort Hood unit where wounded or ill soldiers are sent to heal, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the inquiry.
Two Army officers were assigned recently to look into the problems first raised in a joint investigation published in November by The Dallas Morning News and aired on KXAS-TV (NBC5).
An Army spokesman would not provide details, saying, “We do not comment on pending investigations so as not to prejudice the integrity of the investigation.”
Complaints from wounded soldiers at Fort Hood and two other Texas Army bases described constant friction between their medical requirements and the demands of a military culture based on order and discipline. The News and NBC5 focused on three Texas Warrior Transition Units where injured or ill soldiers go to heal. The Army has 25 such units for recovering soldiers.
Soldiers taking high-dosage medication at night for sleep disorders complained of being forced to make early-morning formation, which entailed driving to work while sedated. Others said they were required to pull 24-hour guard duty despite medical orders requiring them to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Still others described a drill-sergeant-type culture within the WTUs where words like “dirtbag” and other slang terms for malingerers were used by some staff.
Some soldiers expressed satisfaction with their experience in the WTUs, but many others said they were frustrated and angry over their treatment. The allegations came from interviews with current and former soldiers, as well as hundreds of military records obtained by The News and NBC5 through the Freedom of Information Act. The records described complaints made by soldiers in WTUs at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and Fort Hood in Killeen.
Army officials have repeatedly said the problems in the WTU program are isolated and rare. Col. Chris Toner, head of the Warrior Transition Command, which provides policy guidance to the 25 Army WTUs, testified before a congressional subcommittee this month that problems exposed by The News and NBC5 were based on the Army’s own ombudsmen reports from 2009 to 2013.
“Certainly, those conditions existed,” but the issues were resolved, Toner said. “I’m confident that the program and policies and procedures that are in place now have the program going in the right direction.”
But Chuck Luther, a veteran who runs a nonprofit that helps soldiers solve disputes at Fort Hood, said he continues to hear from soldiers about mistreatment and abuse in the WTU. “It seems like it’s gotten worse,” he said.
Many of the soldiers who are mistreated have psychological conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, Luther said.
“I mean I’ve witnessed it personally, senior-level people talking to these soldiers like they’re common trash,” he said.
“Calling them dirtbags, telling them that they’re lying — ‘Oh you have PTSD, you’re just weak, you need to quit trying to get a paycheck,’ things like that,” Luther said.
Difference of opinion
A spokesman for the Army’s surgeon general office, which oversees the WTU program, said the Army is still working on answers to questions from The News and NBC5 about the most recent allegations of problems at the Fort Hood WTU and other related issues.
But at a recent Pentagon media briefing, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho responded to questions about an investigation involving a soldier found to have been mistreated by behavioral health professionals at Fort Carson, Colo. Horoho said that the soldier had not been treated with dignity and respect but that there wasn’t a systemic problem.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said “there’s always cause for concern” when there are differences between what Army officials tell Congress and the views of soldiers in the field.
“It’s important for us in Congress not to just accept what the Army or any other service tells us on its face,” said Thornberry, a Republican from the Texas Panhandle.
Thornberry promised more congressional oversight of the program for treating wounded and ill soldiers, including sending committee staff to Army bases to talk to soldiers in the WTUs.
“And we will continue to provide that sort of oversight, getting some of the soldiers in a room without their commanders, asking them face-to-face about the treatment, about how it either met or failed to meet their expectations,” he said.
At Fort Hood, Luther said at least two to three soldiers a month come to him with complaints of harassment or of having to perform physical duties in violation of a doctor’s recommendation. That includes soldiers required to pull 24-hour guard duty, even though they are on medication or their medical profile requires them to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
“So, if a soldier can’t work more than eight hours at a time because of medicine or sleep [requirements] and then we put them on 24-hour duty, we violate his profile,” Luther said.
A soldier currently assigned to the Fort Hood WTU who spoke to The News and NBC5 confirmed that commanders continue to belittle injured soldiers and disregard their medical limitations. The soldier requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from WTU leadership.
If soldiers complain, they can be cited for not following orders, Luther said.
“If they question anything, they’re being punished,” and retaliation can range from extra duty to a discharge for misconduct, he said.
Sources told The News and NBC5 that the Army’s investigation is being done under Article 15-6 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Such investigations are typically requested by a commander to determine whether a problem exists, said Colby Vokey, a former Marine Corps judge advocate who now practices military law in Dallas. The final report can include recommendations for improvement, he said.
“If there’s a 15-6 investigation that’s been launched, that means there’s a significant enough problem that the Army does not know the answer to — at least that’s the thought,” Vokey said.
But the question of impartiality arises under a 15-6 because an Army command is basically investigating itself, Vokey said.
“The investigations you get are not the most thorough,” he said. “They’re not the most impartial investigations you’ll get, and they leave a lot to be desired.”
Follow David Tarrant on Twitter at @davetarrantnews or email him at email@example.com.