Posted by defensebaseactcomp on April 13, 2010
by Joshua Kors
The mortar shell that wrecked Chuck Luther’s life exploded at the base of the guard tower. Luther heard the brief whistling, followed by a flash of fire, a plume of smoke and a deafening bang that shook the tower and threw him to the floor. The Army sergeant’s head slammed against the concrete, and he lay there in the Iraqi heat, his nose leaking clear fluid.
“I remember laying there in a daze, looking around, trying to figure out where I was at,” he says. “I was nauseous. My teeth hurt. My shoulder hurt. And my right ear was killing me.” Luther picked himself up and finished his shift, then took some ibuprofen to dull the pain. The sergeant was seven months into his deployment at Camp Taji, in the volatile Sunni Triangle, twenty miles north of Baghdad. He was determined, he says, to complete his mission. But the short, muscular frame that had guided him to twenty-two honors–including three Army Achievement Medals and a Combat Action Badge–was basically broken. The shoulder pain persisted, and the hearing in his right ear, which evaporated on impact, never returned, replaced by the maddening hum of tinnitus.
Then came the headaches. “They’d start with a speckling in the corner of my vision, then grow worse and worse until finally the right eye would just shut down and go blank,” he says. “The left one felt like someone was stabbing me over and over in the eye.”
Doctors at Camp Taji’s aid station told Luther he was faking his symptoms. When he insisted he wasn’t, they presented a new diagnosis for his blindness: personality disorder.
“To be told that I was lying, that was a real smack in the face,” says Luther. “Then when they said ‘personality disorder,’ I was really confused. I didn’t understand how a problem with my personality could cause deafness or blindness or shoulder pain.”
For three years The Nation has been reporting on military doctors’ fraudulent use of personality disorder to discharge wounded soldiers [see Kors, “How Specialist Town Lost His Benefits,” April 9, 2007]. PD is a severe mental illness that emerges during childhood and is listed in military regulations as a pre-existing condition, not a result of combat. Thus those who are discharged with PD are denied a lifetime of disability benefits, which the military is required to provide to soldiers wounded during service. Soldiers discharged with PD are also denied long-term medical care. And they have to give back a slice of their re-enlistment bonus. 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.
According to figures from the Pentagon and a Harvard University study, the military is saving billions by discharging soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan with personality disorder.
In July 2007 the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs called a hearing to investigate PD discharges. Barack Obama, then a senator, put forward a bill to halt all PD discharges. And before leaving office, President Bush signed a law requiring the defense secretary to conduct his own investigation of the PD discharge system. But Obama’s bill did not pass, and the Defense Department concluded that no soldiers had been wrongly discharged. The PD dismissals have continued. Since 2001 more than 22,600 soldiers have been discharged with personality disorder. That number includes soldiers who have served two and three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This should have been resolved during the Bush administration. And it should have been stopped now by the Obama administration,” says Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. “The fact that it hasn’t is a national disgrace.”
On Capitol Hill, the fight is not over. In October four senators wrote a letter to President Obama to underline their continuing concern over PD discharges. The president, almost three years after presenting his personality disorder bill, says he remains concerned as well.
Veterans’ leaders say they’re particularly disturbed by Luther’s case because it highlights the severe consequences a soldier can face if he questions his diagnosis and opposes his PD discharge.
Luther insisted to doctors at Camp Taji that he did not have personality disorder, that the idea of developing a childhood mental illness at the age of 36, after passing eight psychological screenings, was ridiculous. The sergeant used a vivid expression to convey how much pain he was in. “I told them that some days, the pain was so bad, I felt like dying.” Doctors declared him a suicide risk. They collected his shoelaces, his belt and his rifle and ordered him confined to an isolation chamber.
Extensive medical records written by Luther’s doctors document his confinement in the aid station for more than a month. The sergeant was kept under twenty-four-hour guard. Most nights, he says, guards enforced sleep deprivation, keeping the lights on and blasting heavy metal music. When Luther rebelled, he was pinned down and injected with sleeping medication.
Eventually Luther was brought to his commander, who told him he had a choice: he could sign papers saying his medical problems stemmed from personality disorder or face more time in isolation.