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Mon May 20, 2013
Other Than Honorable

Gazette Excerpt: No Break For The Wounded

Modern medicine saved Sgt. Jerrald Jensen when he was injured in combat. Decades-old disciplinary rules awaited when he returned home.

Left Behind: No Break For The Wounded

A roadside bomb hit Sgt. Jerrald Jensen’s Humvee in Iraq, punching through heavy armor and shooting a chunk of hot metal into his head at several times the speed of sound, shattering his face and putting him in a coma. “I wasn’t supposed to live,” the veteran lisped with half a tongue through numb lips. “No one knows why I did. It’s shocking.” Even more shocking is what Jensen did next. After 16 surgeries, the sergeant volunteered to go back to combat in one of the most savage corners of Afghanistan, where he was injured again. Perhaps most shocking is what happened when he got home.

Credit The Gazette

Jensen returned to recover in a battalion at Fort Carson designed to care for wounded soldiers called the Warrior Transition Unit. In the WTU, the soldier with a heroic record said he encountered a hostile environment where commanders, some of whom had never deployed, harassed and punished the wounded for the slightest misstep while making them wait many weeks for critical medical care and sometimes canceling care all together.

In 2011, a year after joining the WTU, just days after coming out of a surgery, Jensen tested positive for the drug amphetamine. The then-41-year-old asked to be retested, suggesting his many Army prescriptions might be to blame. His commander refused and instead gave Jensen the maximum punishment, cutting his rank, taking his pay and canceling surgery to fix his face so he could spend weeks mopping floors, picking weeds and scrubbing toilets.

Then, Jensen said, the WTU said he should be discharged for misconduct — the equivalent of getting fired — with an other-than-honorable rating that could bar him from medical benefits for life.

“To call guys who sacrificed so much dishonorable and kick them out with nothing?” said Jensen, who is now out of the Army, living in a small apartment with blankets covering the windows because his injuries make him sensitive to light. “Christ sake, man, it is a disgrace.”

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody."

With troops going back and forth between civilian life and war zones during multiple deployments, discipline regulations designed for more conventional wars of the past are increasing snaring troops. A Gazette investigation shows that after a decade of war, the Army is discharging more soldiers for misconduct every year. The number kicked out Army-wide annually has increased 60 percent since 2006.

On Sunday, The Gazette detailed how some discharged soldiers have invisible wounds of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder but are kicked out anyway. The factors driving the surge in discharges include a lack of objective tests for those invisible injuries; the need to shrink the force by at least 80,000 by 2017; and Army systems that make combat units wait months or years for replacements for the wounded, turning injured soldiers into a burden and giving low-level leaders incentive to get rid of them.

“At a policy level the Army is saying it takes care of these guys, but at a command level it is not happening,” said Lenore Warger, a counselor who has worked with discharged soldiers for 12 years at the veterans rights organization The Quaker House near Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “Often times guys with PTSD or TBI are shunned. Instead of being cared for they are marginalized.”

More than 13,000 soldiers were discharged for misconduct from the Army in 2012, records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show. Army leaders contend that caring for soldiers is a top priority and no one is unduly punished. But the Army does not track how many of the discharged were also injured.

Jerrald Jensen holds pieces of shrapnel that doctors pulled from his face after a blast in Iraq that ripped his jaw apart. The wounded veteran has thought about getting the shrapnel made into a ring.
Credit Michael Ciaglo / The Gazette

Jensen’s saga shows that in the recent surge of misconduct discharges, wounded soldiers are targeted even when injuries are obvious, conduct is heroic, alleged misconduct is relatively minor, and the unit punishing them is designed to help troops heal.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” Jensen said.

The Army refused multiple requests to comment on Jensen’s case.

Army regulations allow soldiers to be discharged for any number of infractions, from drug use to disrespect to showing up late too often. Ultimately, the commanding general of each post decides who is punished and who is spared.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Army considers soldiers’ entire records, as well as their physical and mental conditions, in a discharge. “In short, each case is considered individually and judged on its merits,” he said in an email.

At Fort Carson, discharge data obtained by The Gazette shows few of the wounded are spared. Of the 41 Fort Carson soldiers designated as wounded (those in the medical discharge process) who were targeted for a misconduct discharge in 2012, 80 percent were cut loose.

In the WTU, where soldiers by definition have complex medical issues, the rate of discharge was just as high. Of the five soldiers up for punishment, all but one were kicked out.

In 2011, it was even more harsh. Of four WTU soldiers targeted for misconduct, all were kicked out.

The Fort Carson figures do not account for the unknown number of discharged soldiers with PTSD or TBI who were not in the medical discharge process or the WTU.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson, who commanded Fort Carson from November 2011 until mid-March, said discipline must be strictly enforced, even when soldiers are hurt.

“You are still a soldier until you take the uniform off,” said Anderson, who is slated to become commander of Fort Bragg this summer. “So you cut your hair, you don’t smoke pot, you take care of yourself, you don’t tell people to F off, you don’t get DUIs, you don’t go smoke spice.”

Jensen agreed but said when some soldiers struggle from injuries sustained while serving, the country should not abandon them.

“We are not asking for much. The Army owes us what we owe the Army. Fulfill the contract. Simple as that,” he said. “We went over there. We served honorably. We were hurt in the line of duty. We should be taken care of.”

Continue reading Left Behind: No Break For The Wounded at the Colorado Springs Gazette

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This excerpt is part of a special series by Dave Philipps and published by the Colorado Springs Gazette. It is republished here with permission.