HERO TO ZERO: Under Felony Threat, Wounded Soldiers Caught Abusing Drugs Accepting Deals Forfeiting All

Under pressure to quickly dispose of cases involving injured (non-deployable) soldiers caught abusing drugs and alcohol, Fort Carson’s, BGen. James H. Doty, approved the administrative discharge of dozens of injured soldiers serving under his command during his year-long tenure as acting base commander from 2010-2011. Some observers have indicated the Army is actively targeting wounded troops struggling with substance abuse incidents (and other minor UCMJ violations) as a means to keep deployment readiness high and avoid steep costs associated with paying for long-term medical care and benefits. (DoD)

Fort Carson Policy Targeted Troubled, Wounded Soldiers

Afraid of losing status among comrades and their careers, thousands of soldiers sooth physical and psychiatric injuries by using drugs and alcohol. For those caught, commanders threaten courts-martial and felony conviction. Most soldiers cave to pressure to accept administrative discharge deals offered by military lawyers. Such deals require forfeiture of all medical compensation, loss of VA benefits, and include a service record marked with permanent stamp of dishonor.

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Stars and Stripes, Nov. 15, 2011

FORT CARSON, Colo. — Army Cpl. Joshua Smith saw the orange glow against the South Carolina night sky long before he reached his sister’s apartment complex. The fire in the back buildings was intense. People stood in shock, watching the blaze.

Smith leapt from his rental car and vaulted a five-foot brick wall, yelling at onlookers to call for help. He grabbed an exercise weight someone had left in the yard, threw it through a sliding glass door and burst into the burning building.

Army Cpl. Joshua Smith smashed through a glass patio door and rescued a family from a burning apartment. He received The Soldiers Medal for heroism. In Iraq, he earned an Army Commendation Medal for combat valor. But when he began to abuse drugs and alcohol to cope with symptoms of PTSD, he was quickly disposed of by his Army commanders via an administrative discharge in lieu of court-martial. (DoD)

He shepherded a mother and her 16-month-old daughter to safety, then turned his attention to the other apartments, kicking down doors, running room to room, making sure no one else was trapped.

By the time he emerged, firefighters had arrived. The local TV news hailed the 22-year-old infantryman — home on leave after a tour in Iraq before transferring to Fort Carson, Colo. — whose quick action saved lives.

“It was easy,” Smith said later. “Nobody was shooting at me.”

Sixteen months later, in November 2010, the acting commander at Fort Carson, Brig. Gen. James H. Doty, pinned the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for noncombat heroism, to Smith’s chest.

It was the young soldier’s second valor medal in three years in the military, after an Army Commendation Medal with valor device that he’d been awarded for his combat service.

For all his heroics, however, Smith’s life was falling apart.

He was headed for a medical discharge he didn’t really want, due to knee and back injuries. He was in a disastrous marriage, drinking too much, trying to hide the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Fort Carson doctors checked him into a mental health facility for several days in January.

Then, just three months after the Soldier’s Medal ceremony, Smith came up positive for cocaine use in a random drug test.

In our current medical understanding, both PTSD and substance use disorders (SUD) are illnesses … and need to be understood as medical conditions.

— Lisa M. Najavits, professor of psychiatry, Boston University and author of “Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse”

The usual course of action in the Army is to punish soldiers who test positive for drugs locally and to begin a process that can — but doesn’t always — lead to an administrative discharge from the military.

At Fort Carson, military lawyers had devised a different plan to quickly get rid of wounded soldiers who got in trouble.

Smith’s commanders in the rear detachment of the 2-8 Infantry Regiment, who hadn’t served with him in Iraq, took steps to court-martial him. The criminal charge they levied against him, use of a controlled substance, carried the possibility of jail time, a punitive discharge and a civilian felony record.

Smith and his defense lawyers were shocked.

Then the prosecutors offered him a quick way out:

If he would request an immediate discharge under a legal procedure known as a Chapter 10 — without his medical review, military medical care and potential medical retirement pay or disability severance pay — they would recommend that Doty approve it.

The prosecutors even offered to recommend that Smith receive an honorable discharge (albeit one marked on his paperwork as “in lieu of court-martial”), an almost unheard-of outcome.

Chapter 10 discharges are almost always characterized as “other-than-honorable.”

Read the rest of this in-depth investigative report: