Senators Want Moratorium On Dismissing Soldiers During Investigation

by Daniel Zwerdling

Four U.S. senators are calling on the Army to stop kicking out soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and have been diagnosed with mental health problems or traumatic brain injuries – effective immediately.

The senators say they’re motivated by an investigation by NPR and Colorado Public Radio that revealed the Army has continued to discharge troubled troops for misconduct, even though the Army’s then- Acting Secretary Eric Fanning promised late last year to investigate whether the practice is unfair.

We found that since 2009, the Army has kicked out more than 22,000 mentally-wounded combat troops on the grounds of misconduct, and taken away their benefits, instead of helping them. As a result of that report, 12 Democrat senators sent a letter to Fanning and the general who run the Army, demanding an investigation.

Developments since then raise questions about the Army’s investigation. For instance, Fanning appointed Debra Wada, the Army’s assistant secretary in charge of Manpower and Reserve Affairs to lead the review.

Two weeks after she was named, Wada signed a document ordering commanders to dismiss Larry Morrison, a highly-decorated combat soldier who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was one of the soldiers profiled in the original report by NPR an CPR.

“It’s puzzling and troubling,” says David Sonenshine, a former military prosecutor who now works with the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

He says because “the person who’s in charge of the investigation is also the same person who ultimately reviews some of these administrative separations, [it] creates the picture that there’s just something unfair or unobjective about the process.”

Morrison’s Army records suggest he’s the kind of soldier that senators say the Army should help, not punish. He’s a 20-year veteran. He fought four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Army awarded him a Bronze Star.

After Morrison came home to Fort Carson, in Colorado, he was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He pleaded guilty to drunken and reckless driving. Commanders at Fort Carson also alleged he belonged to a “criminal” motorcycle gang – which Morrison denies. They asked top Army officials for clearance to kick him out for misconduct.

Now that Wada has signed the order, Morrison won’t be able to receive a combat soldier’s usual benefits, including free health care.

If something is concerning enough to investigate, common sense says that you wait until the results of that investigation, before you take further action.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“I’ve given them all of my youthful years, I’m 42 years old,” Morrison says. “And now they want to put me out with no benefits. They want to give me an ‘other than honorable’ discharge, so I can’t get a job, I can’t go to school, and [they’re going to] take my 20-year retirement away. So they want to put me on the streets with nothing.”

Four senators tell NPR and CPR they want the Army to stop dismissing soldiers diagnosed with mental health problems until the Army finishes its investigation.

“The Army needs to halt the discharge process,” says Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “What it does, it stops any kind of wrongdoing from going forward.”

“It seems to me to be common sense that the Army would impose a moratorium on taking disciplinary actions against soldiers while they undergo this review,” says Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

“If something is concerning enough to investigate, common sense says that you wait until the results of that investigation, before you take further action,” says Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “And I think that’s just garden variety fairness.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also tells NPR and CPR that she wants the Army to impose a temporary moratorium on discharging combat troops for misconduct if they’ve been diagnosed with mental health problems or brain injuries.

Army officials declined to say whether they’ll comply with the senators’ requests for a moratorium. They also declined our requests for an interview.

“The review is ongoing, so it would be premature for us to comment on any aspect of it at this time,” Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokesperson, tells NPR in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Morrison just got his final orders. The Army will kick him out Thursday, Feb. 4.