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Week of 6.13.08

Transcript: Fighting the Army

BRANCACCIO: At a White House ceremony this month, President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to the parents of Ross McGinnis, a soldier who died in Iraq when he threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of others. The president said "America will never forget those who came forward to bear the battle,". A true hero and a deeply profound honor.

But a NOW investigation is raising serious questions about how the U.S. Army is treating others who "came forward to bear the battle".

Thousands of soldiers are being thrown out of the military. For many of them, the war still rages in their minds, and they aren't getting the care they need. Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Karla Murthy have our report.

LUTHER: This is an Iraqi national flag. This actually came off one of the downed boats that got sunk on the river.

HINOJOSA: Sgt Chuck Luther was sent to Iraq in 2006 as a combat scout. He had one of the most dangerous jobs in army. So dangerous, they're nicknamed "bulletcatchers."

LUTHER: We were awarded combat spurs to wear on our boots to signify that we've been through combat and that we're battle tested. It's a pretty high honor that we have as scouts.

HINOJOSA: Being a solider was Luther's calling in life. He served proudly for 12 years and had a perfect record of service.

But during a combat tour in Iraq—Luther suddenly began suffering from nightmares, anxiety, anger... symptoms of PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder—a signature wound of the war in Iraq. But instead of treatment, Luther says the army kicked him out.

LUTHER: I loved what I was doing. And imagined doing it for the rest of my life until I couldn't do it anymore. You know, I felt like I've given everything I had to the army, and when I asked for help, the army just threw me away. I felt like—I felt like garbage actually.

HINOJOSA: What's happened to Chuck Luther is not unique. He's part of a disturbing pattern of soldiers who say they've been wrongfully discharged. He's one of 6,000 soldiers who have been kicked out of the army since 2001, told they have a pre-existing "personality disorder." That means—the army decided Luther's medical problems are not from combat—but stem from a mental illness that began before he joined the army—over 12 years ago. So the army says it's is not responsible for taking care of him.

LUTHER: I don't think that the seven army values that—that they say we're supposed to hold—they stand by. You know, integrity, loyalty—all those things—I gave all that to the army, and I got none of it back.

HINOJOSA: Jonathan Norrell has a similar story. He joined the army when he was 19 years old. And like Chuck Luther, was proud to be a solider.

HINOJOSA: What was your idea, of what it was to be a soldier?

NORRELL: Fighting for God and country. I've felt that the most honorable way to check out of this life would be—death on the battlefield.

HINOJOSA: Norrell trained as a combat medic—and in Iraq volunteered for every mission he could get. During his 9 ½ month tour—he treated countless soliders, but there were some he couldn't save.

NORRELL: The first time—I saw the light go out in a good man's eyes, and for, close them forever and things started to, I knew there, that was when I knew that there's nothing great or glorious about dying—in the battlefield.

HINOJOSA: Norrell made it out of Iraq alive, but not unscarred. He started having nightmares and anxiety attacks and was diagnosed with PTSD. The army's own doctor recommended an immediate medical discharge. But that never happened. Left alone to deal with his mental trauma—Norrell started self medicating...using drugs and alcohol to cope.

NORRELL: I hid it for a long time, drinking. Stayed out of trouble. Brushed my teeth before going into work, stuff like that.

HINOJOSA: But when he could no longer hide it—the tables suddenly turned... And instead of a getting the medical discharge doctors recommended—Norrell became one of 40,000 soldiers thrown out of the army since 2001 for misconduct.

NORRELL: I wanted to be remembered as a good soldier. I tried my hardest and I—I saved lives. And then, now, I'm back here and I don't know what the hell to do with myself.

HINOJOSA: After fighting for the army—soldiers like Jonathan Norrell and Chuck Luther are now fighting against it. They're waging a battle to overturn what they say are wrongful discharges... advocates say that the army, faced with an expensive and demanding war, is using these discharges as an easy way to get rid of broken soldiers.

PICARD: Mental health injuries are very much combat-related injury. And you're entitled to care and treatment for your combat-related injuries, as a matter of law. You're entitled to it.

HINOJOSA: It's an issue that hits close to home for Carissa Picard. She's married to an officer stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. Armed with a law degree from Georgetown University—she founded an organization to help soldiers called "Military Spouses for Change". Picard says, when soldiers are kicked out with these discharges, there are severe consequences...they're left with little or no benefits. On top of that, soldiers have to pay back thousands of dollars in enlistment bonuses. And this has her outraged.

PICARD: It's shocking to me! Not only will they serve a combat tour and go to Iraq, and then end up traumatized from that, and then get kicked out instead of getting treated is they're having to pay back their—their bonuses.

HINOJOSA: And I'm sure that there are some people who are gonna hear this and they'll say, "That's impossible. It can't be happening that the military is doing this to soldiers."

PICARD: Yeah. But, they are. They absolutely are.

HINOJOSA: To get a sense of what these soldiers have gone through, we spent some time here in Killeen, Texas—home to Fort Hood—the largest army base in the U.S. It's where Chuck Luther's story begins. In 2004, Chuck Luther, then 34 years old, re-enlisted in the army—and was sent to Iraq as a combat scout.

LUTHER: We go before everybody else. So, we're actually sneakin' in—under cover of night, things like that, you know, watchin' the enemy when he doesn't know we're watchin'.

HINOJOSA: In Iraq, the deadly reality of war hit hard. 4 soldiers in his unit, including a close friend—died in an i.e.d. blast. Then, a boat mission on the Tigris River went terribly wrong. In a chaotic fight—three were wounded, one died. It was an emotional blow. But Luther knew as a solider, he couldn't show it.

LUTHER: I was told, you know, you got—you can't show emotion for these guys. You gotta—gotta suck it up. I mean, these guys are hurtin' and you're gonna have to take care of 'em.

HINOJOSA: Soon after, Luther came home for 2 weeks leave, to see his family in Texas, but he didn't realize he brought the war with him. Luther would wake up at night, shouting for his life. He became angry sometimes violent—all symptoms of PTSD.

LUTHER: I would punch things. I—I'd punch walls. I ended up breakin' my hand while I was on leave. I left war healthy—physically, and went back with a broken hand.

HINOJOSA: Luther went back to Iraq. He knew something was wrong with him, but wouldn't get help.

LUTHER: You just know that you don't go ask for help for mental health, because you lose security clearances. They look down on you. You know, they treat you bad. I thought well, I'm old enough. I can deal with it. It'll—it'll pass.

HINOJOSA: In May 2007, Luther was stationed at a guard tower in Taji. Suddenly, a mortar exploded and he was knocked to the ground.

LUTHER: I had this horrible headache. I couldn't see real good. I was nauseous. I had this clear fluid comin' outta my nose. My ear was just ringin'.

HINOJOSA: He was treated after the explosion. But his medical records show that over the next few weeks, Luther kept going back to the doctors ... complaining of chest pains, shortness of breath, flashbacks, anxiety. But the doctors who checked him out said not only was he fine, he was faking his symptoms. They claimed he was using the medical system to get out of work.

LUTHER: I've never once in my military career been in trouble. I've never lied. I've never faked an injury, never malingered as they called it.

HINOJOSA: He was given medications to calm his nerves. But Luther says, things just got worse.

LUTHER: I was startin' to lose it at that point. And I didn't understand why. And it was really scary.

HINOJOSA: What happened to Luther is shocking...doctors insisted that Chuck Luther's problems had nothing to do with the war. After 12 years of service, Luther was diagnosed with a personality disorder—a pre-existing mental illness.

LUTHER: The mental physician, said, "Sergeant, they're gonna chapter you out with a 513 personality disorder. And is that what you want?" And I said, "Sir, I don't know what I want at this point. I want somebody to help me I—I don't want the dreams. I wanna be a soldier. I wanna do my job."

HINOJOSA: But Luther says, the doctors wouldn't help him. Out of sheer desperation to get out of Iraq, he signed the discharge.... Luther didn't realize that meant he would have to pay the army back $13,000 in bonuses, and that he would lose his all disability benefits. He arrived home to Texas alone and without fanfare... waiting in the rain for his wife to pick him up. His career as a solider was over.

LUTHER: So that was my hero's welcome home. You know, that was givin' of my life 12 years to the army. That's what I got.

HINOJOSA: Andrew Pogany is helping Chuck Luther fight his wrongful discharge. A former solider, Pogany successfully fought the army to have his own discharge overturned. He's now an investigator for the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

POGANY: It gives me an opportunity to continue to serve and continue to live up to the values, leave no fallen comrade behind.

HINOJOSA: Pogany has worked on over 200 cases of wrongful discharges.

POGANY: When the soldier signs on the dotted line and commits to service to this country, that commitment comes with the understanding that if something happens to us that we will be taken care of.

HINOJOSA: After examining Luther's records, Pogany is convinced he doesn't have a pre-existing personality disorder. He says -just look at the standard definition.... A mental illness that begins in quote "adolescence or early adulthood." On top of that, Luther says he was given a mental health screening 8 times during his 12 years of service, and each time, given a clean bill of health.

We asked the army's top psychiatrist, Col. Elspeth Ritchie for some answers. How is it that the Army can have these soldiers that the Army has already screened, and then, after 12 years of service, is suddenly —diagnosed with a personality disorder?

COL. ELSPETH RITCHIE: The case that you are discussing sounds highly unusual to me.

HINOJOSA: Col. Ritchie would not comment on any specific case, but she said, that sometimes, soldiers slip through the screening process.

COL. ELSPETH RITCHIE: Sometimes we don't know everything about a soldier. Sometimes the soldier doesn't tell us everything. And the problems may not become apparent until after they've been in for six months or a year.

HINOJOSA: But 12 years? Col. Ritchie admits discrepancies occur.

COL. ELSPETH RITCHIE: I can't say that everything happened right every time. But I will say that if there was a mistake that was made. There are mechanisms by which soldiers can go back and have their cases reviewed.

HINOJOSA: Luther says -those "mechanisms" are not easy to figure out. Misinformed about the process, he missed a crucial window of time to appeal his case. Out of frustration—Luther contacted a reporter. Joshua Kors had written a groundbreaking story for The Nation magazine about the thousands of personality disorder discharges in the military.

KORS: Soldiers who were wounded and denied care through these fraudulent discharges, they started contacting me and in February. That's what happened with Chuck he wrote me a letter.

HINOJOSA: Kors helped Chuck Luther get in touch with advocates to work on his case.

KORS: The fact that these guys are coming to me is bizarre, it's sad, but I think a lot of these guys just don't know where to go.

HINOJOSA: Kors investigation also revealed that these discharges save the military a lot of money...remember, the army doesn't have to pay disability for personality disorder discharges. Kors wrote that across the entire armed forces, they could be saving upwards of $8 billion dollars.

Reporting from Kors and others triggered a bi-partisan effort led by Democratic senator Barack Obama and Republican Kit Bond—demanding that the Department of Defense to investigate these discharges. The report, released just this week, recommends new policies that include corroborating the personality disorder diagnosis and addressing PTSD before discharging soldiers.

At the same time, advocates point to another brewing scandal—the alarming number of soldiers suffering from PTSD but getting kicked out for misconduct.

Soldiers like 23 year old—Jonathan Norrell. As a combat medic, he experienced the human toll of war everyday.

NORRELL: I wore—blood soaked boots for I don't know how many weeks. And—it wasn't until later on that it—it really started to get to me.

HINOJOSA: In Iraq, Norrell volunteered to go out on missions, and that meant, getting into harm's way.

HINOJOSA: When you got hit by the i.e.d.'s. What happened?

NORRELL: I would have a headache and ringing in my ears for at least three days afterwards.

HINOJOSA: Concussion?

NORRELL: I had a couple of minor concussions. Just had my bell rung a few times to where—just was really out of it. Kind of-

HINOJOSA: What does that mean, have your bell rung?

NORRELL: It'd be like getting hit in the head with a brick.

HINOJOSA: He says his unit was hit by at least 6 i.e.d's. These multiple concussions can lead to traumatic brain injury. But it wasn't just the i.e.d.'s that affected him... it was also the brutal reality of death in a war zone.

NORRELL: One of the most—traumatic experiences for me, in Iraq, was when a man was shot in the head. And his wife and his daughter begged me to help them. And were crying and upset. And there was absolutely nothing I could do for him. He'd been shot in the face seven or eight times. And I had to hold the back of his head together to keep his brains from falling out all over the ground while we put him in the bag. You know, I didn't want that to happen in front of his wife and kids.

HINOJOSA: Like Chuck Luther, Norrell learned to deal with those traumatic experiences while he was—by not thinking about them. After 9 and a half months in Iraq, he was sent back to Texas...given 6 days leave to visit family... and that's when the war suddenly caught up with him.

NORRELL: I was driving back to my grandma's house. And the lights, I don't know what it was—I just—I forgot where I was. I couldn't see the road anymore. I completely lost it. Crying. I couldn't breathe. I was scared. I didn't know what, you know, I didn't know what to think.

HINOJOSA: That first panic attack was just the beginning of a downward spiral. Even though he was now back at Fort Hood, Norrell was plagued by disturbing memories of war. He didn't know who to turn to for help. He started to self destruct by self medicating...

NORRELL: I—I started, you know, I started drinking all the time. It got to where I couldn't even sleep anymore at night—without waking up sweating. Without, you know, slamming a bottle of Jack Daniels, you know, before going to bed.

HINOJOSA: A whole bottle?

NORRELL: No. Not a whole bottle. But—throughout maybe in—in a day, a whole bottle, yeah.

HINOJOSA: Norrell finally went to see a doctor who diagnosed him with PTSD. The doctor recommended to Norrell's commanders that he be medically discharged immediately and sent home. But that never happened.

NORRELL: It just turned into lies and field time after that.

HINOJOSA: Lies?

NORRELL: I don't know how many times I was told that it would only be—a few weeks. And I'd—would be clearing, and on my way home. And that was the only thing that kept me goin'.

HINOJOSA: Norrell began to deteriorate, drinking, smoking pot. For a second time, the doctor recommended him for an immediate medical discharge. Instead, his commanders ordered Norrell to go to California for heavy combat training.

NORRELL: I felt like it was the worst idea in the history of bad ideas.

HINOJOSA: In despair, Norrell disobeyed orders and missed the flight.

Do you feel like they punished you?

NORRELL: Oh. I'll tell you, they punished me severely for that. I was real scared. I knew I was gonna be in trouble. But it wasn't enough to stop me from doin' it

HINOJOSA: By then, Norrell had racked up a long list of misconduct charges. He says, he just wanted out. So when his commanders told him they were going to discharge him for misconduct—and that as a result, he would lose all his benefits, Norrell signed the papers anyway.

NORRELL: Definitely signed it, because I wanted to go home. I don't care about money. I don't care about anything anymore, except goin' home.

HINOJOSA: Norrell's mom had put out a call for help, and Carissa Picard was already working on his case. She sent his files to Andrew Pogany and other advocates to see if they could help overturn Norrell's misconduct discharge.

There are members of the Army who say, "Look, this soldier was taking part in misconduct. He needs to be discharged, take responsibility for what he did."

POGANY: I agree with that, except we gotta ask the question, "What came first, the PTSD, or the misconduct?" If you haven't asked that question, then you have no business discharging people.

HINOJOSA: He says, in Norrell's case it's clear—the PTSD was causing his misconduct. With the help advocates like Pogany, Carissa Picard flooded the army with letters and phone calls. The evidence was so convincing that within in two weeks, Jonathan Norrell's discharge was overturned.

NORRELL: In a sense, I think she saved my life because she came in, and within 12 hours, I was gettin' help.

HINOJOSA: When you see Jonathan, 23 years old, what goes on for you?

PICARD: I don't know that people realize how young our soldiers are. Like I live on post, and there's thousands of Jonathan Norrells. But I don't see them. Nobody does. They're all in their uniforms. And when I saw Jonathan, I—I realized, my God. They're just so young.

HINOJOSA: Why does a soldier like Jonathan Norrell fall through the cracks? How does that happen?

PICARD: Well, I don't know that it's falling through the cracks. This is a huge hole. It's a flaw in the system

HINOJOSA: Picard say—these wrongful discharges won't stop until the army regulations are changed. She says, if we don't care for our soldiers now, they will return to society more at risk for homelessness, criminal behavior, reliant on social services.

PICARD: And who pays for that? We all do. So, if—if you don't care on any kind of humanitarian level about these people who have sacrificed so much on your behalf, then care on a—purely practical level. Because you're going to be paying higher taxes.

HINOJOSA: Just last month, the army issued a new directive. It now requires soldiers who are getting administrative discharges, to be screened for both PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

COL. ELSPETH RITCHIE: I know we're not perfect. We're—we're busy, we're working hard. Again, we've been at war for a long time, so there may have been mistakes made. And if there are mistakes made, we have a responsibility to make those mistakes right

HINOJOSA: But for Chuck Luther and his family, those mistakes have been devastating.

NICKI LUTHER: I realize they have a war to fight. I realize they're very busy. You know, but somebody had to take of my husband.

HINOJOSA: Chuck Luther is now home with is wife Niki and their kids- Christian, Alexa and Taylor. But the man Nicki married 16 years ago is not the same person—and they've been struggling to be a family again.

NICKI LUTHER: He blames himself. But, it wasn't his fault. He thinks he should have been able to dust off and go on. And he just couldn't.

ALEXA LUTHER: He was, like, the greatest dad ever. I mean, it's—it's simple. He—he wasn't like that before he left.

HINOJOSA: Without treatment—Chuck Luther got worse. His violent outbursts became more frequent... breaking things, punching holes in the walls. It's got so bad—the police had to come to their house.

ALEXA LUTHER: We both had to—had to like physically hold my dad back from hitting my mom at times. And it was just like he was a completely different person.

HINOJOSA: After months of being home, Chuck Luther went to the VA for help. He was finally diagnosed with PTSD. More evidence to help Luther overturn his discharge. Now in treatment, he's getting better, learning how to leave the war behind him.

CHUCK LUTHER: You know, I fought for my life over there and I survived. And I plan on fighting for my life here and surviving.

HINOJOSA: Seeing their dad go through this battle, has been tough on the kids too. His daughter Alexa used to wear his dog tags.

ALEXA LUTHER: I wore 'em like almost every day when he was gone. And then once he started doin' that stuff, I didn't hate him. But I just stopped wearing them. And now that he's finally getting better, I'll wear 'em again.

HINOJOSA: They're beginning to heal. And there's a new member of the Luther family... Marlee Grace was born 4 weeks ago, and she's bringing them even closer.

As for Jonathan Norrell—he will now be medically discharged.

But because of the backlog ... he's still living on base surrounded by the memories of the war and the army he once proudly served.

NORRELL: Now—now, I just—I—I can't wait to take these boots off. I have to get out of this uniform I have to step away from this, or I won't make it.

BRANCACCIO: Do you know an active duty soldier or veteran who needs help? We've put together a list of legal, social, and psychological resources. It's all on our website.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.