Jon Town has spent the last few years fighting two battles, one against his body, the other against the US Army. Both began in October 2004 in Ramadi, Iraq. He was standing in the doorway of his battalion’s headquarters when a 107-millimeter rocket struck two feet above his head. The impact punched a piano-sized hole in the concrete facade, sparked a huge fireball and tossed the 25-year-old Army specialist to the floor, where he lay blacked out among the rubble.
“The next thing I remember is waking up on the ground.” Men from his unit had gathered around his body and were screaming his name. “They started shaking me. But I was numb all over,” he says. “And it’s weird because… because for a few minutes you feel like you’re not really there. I could see them, but I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t hear anything. I started shaking because I thought I was dead.”
Eventually the rocket shrapnel was removed from Town’s neck and his ears stopped leaking blood. But his hearing never really recovered, and in many ways, neither has his life. A soldier honored twelve times during his seven years in uniform, Town has spent the last three struggling with deafness, memory failure and depression. By September 2006 he and the Army agreed he was no longer combat-ready.
But instead of sending Town to a medical board and discharging him because of his injuries, doctors at Fort Carson, Colorado, did something strange: They claimed Town’s wounds were actually caused by a “personality disorder.” Town was then booted from the Army and told that under a personality disorder discharge, he would never receive disability or medical benefits.
Town is not alone. A six-month investigation has uncovered multiple cases in which soldiers wounded in Iraq are suspiciously diagnosed as having a personality disorder, then prevented from collecting benefits. The conditions of their discharge have infuriated many in the military community, including the injured soldiers and their families, veterans’ rights groups, even military officials required to process these dismissals.
They say the military is purposely misdiagnosing soldiers like Town and that it’s doing so for one reason: to cheat them out of a lifetime of disability and medical benefits, thereby saving billions in expenses.
The Fine Print
In the Army’s separations manual it’s called Regulation 635-200, Chapter 5-13: “Separation Because of Personality Disorder.” It’s an alluring choice for a cash-strapped military because enacting it is quick and cheap. The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t have to provide medical care to soldiers dismissed with personality disorder. That’s because under Chapter 5-13, personality disorder is a pre-existing condition. The VA is only required to treat wounds sustained during service.
Soldiers discharged under 5-13 can’t collect disability pay either. To receive those benefits, a soldier must be evaluated by a medical board, which must confirm that he is wounded and that his wounds stem from combat. The process takes several months, in contrast with a 5-13 discharge, which can be wrapped up in a few days.
If a soldier dismissed under 5-13 hasn’t served out his contract, he has to give back a slice of his re-enlistment bonus as well. That amount is often larger than the soldier’s final paycheck. As a result, on the day of their discharge, many injured vets learn that they owe the Army several thousand dollars.