Senators Want Moratorium On Dismissing Soldiers During Investigation

Feb 1, 2016
Originally published on February 2, 2016 6:26 pm

Four U.S. senators are calling on the Army to stop kicking out soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and have been diagnosed with mental health problems or traumatic brain injuries — effective immediately.

The senators say they're motivated by an investigation by NPR and Colorado Public Radio that revealed the Army has continued to discharge troubled troops for misconduct, even though the Army's then-Acting Secretary Eric Fanning promised late last year to investigate whether the practice is unfair.

We found that since 2009, the Army has kicked out more than 22,000 mentally wounded combat troops on the grounds of misconduct, and taken away their benefits, instead of helping them. As a result of that report, 12 Senate Democrats sent a letter demanding an investigation to Fanning and the general who, working together, run the Army.

Developments since then raise questions about the Army's investigation. For instance, Fanning appointed Debra Wada, the Army's assistant secretary in charge of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, to lead the review.

Two weeks after she was named, Wada signed a document ordering commanders to dismiss Larry Morrison, a highly decorated combat soldier who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was one of the soldiers profiled in the original report by NPR and CPR.

"It's puzzling and troubling," says David Sonenshine, a former military prosecutor who now works with the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

He says that because "the person who's in charge of the investigation is also the same person who ultimately reviews some of these administrative separations, [it] creates the picture that there's just something unfair or unobjective about the process."

Morrison's Army records suggest he's the kind of soldier whom senators say the Army should help, not punish. He's a 20-year veteran. He fought four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Army awarded him a Bronze Star.

After Morrison came home to Fort Carson, in Colorado, he was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He pleaded guilty to drunken and reckless driving. Commanders at Fort Carson also alleged he belonged to a "criminal" motorcycle gang — something Morrison denies. They asked top Army officials for clearance to kick him out for misconduct.

Now that Wada has signed the order, Morrison won't be able to receive a combat soldier's usual benefits, including free health care.

"I've given them all of my youthful years; I'm 42 years old," Morrison says. "And now they want to put me out with no benefits. They want to give me an 'other than honorable' discharge, so I can't get a job, I can't go to school, and [they're going to] take my 20-year retirement away. So they want to put me on the streets with nothing."

Four senators tell NPR and CPR they want the Army to stop dismissing soldiers diagnosed with mental health problems until the Army finishes its investigation.

"The Army needs to halt the discharge process," says Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "What it does, it stops any kind of wrongdoing from going forward."

"It seems to me to be common sense that the Army would impose a moratorium on taking disciplinary actions against soldiers while they undergo this review," says Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

"If something is concerning enough to investigate, common sense says that you wait until the results of that investigation before you take further action," says Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "And I think that's just garden variety fairness."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also tells NPR and CPR that she wants the Army to impose a temporary moratorium on discharging combat troops for misconduct if they've been diagnosed with mental health problems or brain injuries.

Army officials declined to say whether they'll comply with the senators' requests for a moratorium. They also declined our requests for an interview.

"The review is ongoing, so it would be premature for us to comment on any aspect of it at this time," Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokesperson, tells NPR in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Morrison just got his final orders. The Army will kick him out Thursday.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Some U.S. senators want the Army to stop kicking out combat soldiers with mental health disorders or traumatic brain injuries. The Army says these soldiers have committed misconduct. Firing them denies them military benefits.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

After NPR first reported this in October, the Army launched an investigation, but it's still kicking the soldiers out. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has our update which he reported with Michael de Yoanna of Colorado Public Radio.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: Everybody we talked to said the Army needs to kick out soldiers who misbehave when they behave badly and it's clearly the soldier's own fault. But after our report, a dozen Democratic senators protested to the Army. They said combat soldiers with mental health problems and brain injuries need help, not punishment. So the acting head of the Army appointed one of its top officials to lead the investigation. Is the Army kicking out combat troops who have mental health problems and brain injuries unfairly? The official's name is Debra Wada, and exactly two weeks after she was named, Wada signed a document ordering commanders to kick out a highly decorated combat soldier who's been diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.

DAVID SONENSHINE: It's puzzling and troubling.

ZWERDLING: David Sonenshine used to be an Army prosecutor. Now he's with the National Veterans Legal Services Program. He says it's troubling that the very official who's investigating how the Army kicks out soldiers with mental health problems signs some of the orders to kick them out.

SONENSHINE: It definitely paints somewhat of a picture that the investigation may not be fair or objective.

ZWERDLING: The soldier Wada ordered to be kicked out is Sergeant First Class Larry Morrison. We profiled him in our original story. He seems like the kind of soldier that senators say the Army should help, not punish. Morrison has served more than 20 years. He fought four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army awarded him a bronze star. Then Morrison came home to Fort Carson in Colorado. He pleaded guilty to drunken and reckless driving, and Army officials alleged that he joined a criminal motorcycle gang. Morrison denies it. Now that the Army's going to kick him out, he won't be able to get free medical care even though they've diagnosed him with chronic PTSD.

SERGEANT FIRST CLASS LARRY MORRISON: Now they want to put me out with no benefits.

ZWERDLING: Larry Morrison.

MORRISON: They want to give me an other-than-honorable discharge so I can't get a job. I can't go to school and take my 20-year retirement away. So they want to put me on the streets with nothing.

ZWERDLING: When senators heard that the Army is still kicking out soldiers like Larry Morrison, some of them said, stop.

JON TESTER: The Army needs to halt the discharge process. What it does - it stops any kind of wrongdoing from going forward.

ZWERDLING: That's Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Here's Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

CHRIS MURPHY: It seems to me to be common sense that the Army would impose a moratorium on taking disciplinary actions against soldiers while they undergo this review.

ZWERDLING: Senator Barbara Boxer of California supports a temporary moratorium. So does Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.

RON WYDEN: If something is concerning enough to investigate, common sense says that you wait until the results of that investigation before you take further actions, and I think that's just garden-variety fairness.

ZWERDLING: We asked to talk with the Army official who's leading its investigation. An Army spokeswoman answered, the review is ongoing, so it would be premature for us to comment. Meanwhile, Larry Morrison just got his final orders. The Army will kick him out on Thursday. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.