After an hour of bench-pressing a log weighing several hundred pounds during Army Special Forces selection training in February 2006, five soldiers lying on their backs at Fort Bragg, N.C., reacted quickly to the next order:
So quickly, in fact, that when they dropped the log, it landed on Spc. Paul Thurman’s head.
“I shook for a moment, and then went limp,” Thurman told Military Times. “I was unconscious for a minute or two, and then I went back to training.”
An MRI later showed that Thurman had lesions on the right parietal lobe of his brain, a condition that led to a “don’t deploy” order — which the Army violated, according to Thurman. Worse, rather than providing compassionate understanding of the symptoms associated with traumatic brain injury, he said leaders at Fort Carson, Colo., have harassed him, refused him medication and pushed for an Article 15.
Thurman stepped forward Friday as one of the 18 soldiers whose cases were cited by six senators in a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting a review of alleged improper handling of traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and ungrounded personality disorder discharges.
The letter was sent after an Army surgeon general investigation into the cases said the soldiers were handled properly — but the soldiers involved said no one from the surgeon general’s office ever talked to them in the course of that investigation.
Meanwhile, a former Fort Carson officer has come forward to denounce the treatment of a soldier diagnosed with pre-existing personality disorder, rather than PTSD and traumatic brain injury, after reading about the case of Spc. Jon Town in Military Times.
Town was discharged for a pre-existing personality disorder even though he had no history of mental health problems until after he returned from Iraq — a prerequisite for a personality disorder diagnosis.
Edward Kaspar said he served as Town’s lieutenant and was a witness to the incident in which a rocket exploded above Town’s head in Iraq, causing his brain injury.
“I was pretty shocked to hear about his problems now,” Kaspar said by e-mail. “This personality disorder thing just doesn’t make sense. I’m not a trained medical professional, but I can say that in the years he served as one of my soldiers, he definitely had it together. ? I relied on him to get the job done and he never failed me, both in peacetime and in war.”
Andrew Pogany, who has been investigating soldier complaints at Fort Carson, said that though he is no longer surprised by the stories, he is particularly angry about Thurman’s case.
“He has a profile that says he can’t always understand orders because of his brain injury — but they’re giving him an Article 15 for disobeying orders,” Pogany said. “This kind of treatment is very pervasive across the board.”
Thurman said a civilian lawyer — a former military attorney — may take his case pro bono.
After his initial brain injury during Special Forces selection training, Thurman tore a bicep muscle and had to drop out because he couldn’t move his arm. He went back to Fort Carson, where his unit was preparing to deploy to Iraq.
“My profile said I was undeployable because of the thing in my head,” Thurman said. “I also have melanoma skin cancer, and couldn’t deploy because of that.”
He said he mentioned his profile to his chain of command, but said the doctor and his commander cleared him to go to Iraq anyway.
Once in Iraq, Thurman said, he was told he would head to Germany for a follow-up MRI to make sure his brain was OK, even with the already-existing lesions.
But before he got a chance to go to Germany, he said, he was injured again during a training exercise in Iraq.
“We were doing convoy training, and somebody told us to clear a medevac helicopter,” he said. “I heard somebody yell out, ‘Grenade!’ I turned around to see a new private picking up a really big IED simulator.”
Thurman said he dived for the ground as the private threw the simulator, but the device landed three inches from his head.
“I could feel a huge concussion wave, and then I couldn’t hear anything,” Thurman said. “I told my sergeants my ears were hurting and that I felt really weird. My vision was acting all strange.”
Soon he was having dizzy spells, was losing his balance and couldn’t sleep.
His company sent him to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center in Germany, where the doctors, he said, told him he shouldn’t have been deployed to Iraq. They forwarded him on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he said he spent “eight hours with the USO ladies eating cookies” before being packed off to Fort Carson. He said he was not examined while at Walter Reed.
Since the injuries, Thurman said he blacks out, has seizures that last up to 40 minutes, has short-term memory loss and maintains a constant headache. Once, in front of his Army lawyer, he started throwing up and having a seizure, he said.
For that reason, his doctors told him to take depakote, which he said leaves him drowsy. At Fort Carson, he’s attached to a rear detachment unit because his company is still in Iraq.
In January, the company had a health-and-welfare inspection at 2:30 a.m. As dogs searched the barracks for drugs, the soldiers reported to the company area for a drug urinalysis. But standing in formation, Thurman said his face and arm began to go numb, and he could tell he had a seizure coming on. He realized he needed his medication, and said he asked a staff sergeant if he could go. He was told no. He said he asked the first sergeant, and was told no. He said he asked the company commander, and was told no.
Finally, dizzy and disoriented, he walked away from the formation to get his medication.
“Someone yelled, ‘Private! Get back in formation!’ ” Thurman said. “But I’m a specialist, and I was already pretty disoriented, so I kept walking.”
His medical profile states that Thurman sometimes can’t follow orders because he can’t comprehend them. He was being processed out of the Army for a medical disability. Next, he said, a staff sergeant yelled at him to get back in formation.
“I said, ‘F— you,’ I’ve got to get my medication,’ ” and kept walking,” Thurman said. “I ended up having a seizure right there. Then they took me to do a urinalysis.”
His expletive, he said, led to an Article 15 — but the write-up, Thurman and Pogany say, doesn’t say anything about Thurman cursing only after being denied permission to get his anti-seizure medication. His urinalysis came up clean.
His profile also states he can’t drive because of the seizures. But this month, he received a bad counseling statement, he said, for refusing to attend an 80-hour driving course.
“All my counseling statements in the past have been great. They say things like ‘esprit de corps’ — that’s top-notch. I was always volunteering. I attended like 15 different schools.”
Now he’s pushing for a court-martial, rather than the Article 15, to make sure someone higher in the chain of command sees what’s happening to him.
“That’s my right,” he said.
Pogany agrees with other critics who have noted that injured troops separated from service with bad-conduct discharges and diagnoses of pre-existing personality orders have no shot at disability retirement benefits — which holds down the military’s costs to pay those benefits.
Defense and service officials have repeatedly denied that budget concerns play a role in such cases, but Pogany doesn’t buy it. “It’s just sick,” he said. “The pile is really starting to stink.”
The letter to the GAO, dated April 19, is signed by Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill.; Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Christopher Bond, R-Mo.; Joe Lieberman, I-Conn; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. It was also sent to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren.
Steve Robinson, legislative director for Veterans for America, said the Government Accountability Office has begun its investigation.