Specialist Town Takes His Case to Washington
On April 9, Spc. Jon Town was featured on the cover of The Nation, in an article that told how he was wounded in Iraq, won a Purple Heart and was then denied all disability and medical benefits. Town's doctor had concluded that his headaches and hearing loss were not caused by the 107-millimeter rocket that knocked him unconscious but by a psychological condition, "personality disorder," a pre-existing illness for which one cannot collect disability pay or receive medical care.
Soon Town became a national figure, the human face of the 22,500 soldiers discharged with personality disorder in the past six years. His story was picked up by the Army Times, Washington Post Radio and ABC News's Bob Woodruff. It was dramatized in a May episode of NBC's Law & Order. And rock star Dave Matthews began discussing Town's plight at every stop in his spring concert series.
Further investigation by The Nation has uncovered more than a dozen cases like Town's from bases across the country. All of the soldiers interviewed passed the rigorous health screening given recruits before being accepted into the Army. All were deemed physically and psychologically fit in a second screening as well, before being deployed to Iraq, and served honorably there in combat. None of the soldiers interviewed during this eleven-month investigation had a documented history of psychological problems.
Yet after they returned from Iraq wounded and sought treatment, each was diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder, then denied benefits. As in Town's case, Army doctors determined that the soldiers' ailments were pre-existing without interviewing friends, family or fellow soldiers who knew them before they were wounded in combat.
In this article you will hear from Army doctors who say wounded soldiers are routinely misdiagnosed. One says he was pressured by superiors to diagnose personality disorder in cases where soldiers were physically wounded or suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, acting surgeon general of the Army, was briefed on the problems with the Army's personality disorder discharges. Instead of correcting cases like Town's, she buried them. The surgeon general released a series of memos filled with fabrications. Pollock then informed wounded soldiers that their cases had been thoroughly reviewed by an independent panel of health experts when in fact no such review was conducted.
"This is not the way the government ought to work. It's not the way they should be responding to veterans," says Representative Bob Filner, chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. He first heard Town's story in April and began working soon afterward to bring the soldier to Washington. There Town would get his chance to tell Congress everything: about his diagnosis, his discharge and the work of Surgeon General Pollock.
'Thoroughly Evaluated and Reviewed'
Andrew Pogany, an investigator for the soldiers' rights group Veterans for America, has been looking into personality disorder discharges for two years. The discharge, officially known as Regulation 635-200, Chapter 5-13, is simply a loophole, he says, to dismiss wounded soldiers without providing them benefits. Pogany says Town's case is a textbook example of how Chapter 5-13 is being applied. Town had no history of psychological problems and had served seven years, winning a dozen medals, before being discharged with a personality disorder.
The investigator was so disturbed by the Army's use of 5-13 discharges that he brought his research to Pollock. In late October 2006, he and Steve Robinson, Veterans for America's director of veterans affairs, met with Pollock and presented her with a stack of personality disorder cases, including Town's. The surgeon general promised a thorough review.
On March 23, five months after her meeting with Pogany, Pollock released her findings. Her office had "thoughtfully and thoroughly" reviewed the personality disorder cases and determined that all of the soldiers, including Town, had been properly diagnosed. Pollock commended the doctors who diagnosed personality disorder for their excellent work.
Four days later the military followed up with a press release, this one signed by Lieut. Col. Bob Tallman, the Army's chief of public affairs. Tallman's memo provided further detail on Pollock's review. A panel of behavioral health experts had reviewed the personality disorder cases, Tallman wrote, and they didn't stop at the stack of cases presented to the surgeon general. They "thoroughly evaluated and reviewed" all the Chapter 5-13s from the past four years at Fort Carson, where Specialist Town had been based, and determined that all of those cases had been properly diagnosed as well.
There was a glaring problem with Pollock's review. In the five months she spent "thoughtfully and thoroughly" reviewing the cases, her office did not interview anyone, not even the soldiers whose cases they were reviewing.
Asked how he could call the surgeon general's review "thorough" when no soldiers were interviewed, Tallman said he could not. "Let me be honest with you," he said. "I know nothing about this memo and little to nothing about the review." Tallman said the memo bearing his name was actually ghostwritten by Pollock's office. The lieutenant colonel added that as far as he knew, Pollock conducted no review at all.
Pollock's office quickly admitted that it had ghostwritten the Tallman memo but assured veterans' groups that the surgeon general had indeed conducted a review. In an e-mail Pollock's chief spokeswoman, Cynthia Vaughan, explained that the surgeon general did not want to interview soldiers because she felt they had no medically valid information to share. "Calling a soldier who underwent a 5-13 Chapter in 2003 and asking him (in 2007) to recall his mental condition in 2003 does not hold medical validity," Vaughan wrote.