Wednesday, September 15, 2010






The US House Veterans Affairs Committee held two hearings this morning, one -- more or less -- after the other (there was approximately a 12 minute break between the two) and they couldn't have been more different. In the first one, Ranking Member Steve Buyer was (for the most part) beaming and playful, offering statements such as, to Chair Bob Filner, "You pass acquisition form and I will hug you. I will hug you!" In the second hearing, Buyer stormed out asking that Dr. Roe take his place, saying his integrity would be compromised if he stayed and "I'm not going to do it!"
Keep in mind that I am a Democrat and Buyer is a Republican, I've never seen anything like that. And that was only the culmination of Buyer's behavior in the second panel.
My impression, Buyer was not grandstanding, he was genuinely outraged (whether it was by the hearing or something outside of Congress, I have no idea). But he can't back that outrage up. He basically accused a witness of lying -- while dismissing the other on the first panel as useless -- and waived around a file of medical records implying that those documents proved the witness was lying, he lectured the witness and would repeatedly say he wasn't going to say more because he had too much integrity but then he would come back to the same issue. Repeatedly. His storming out had an immediate effect in that he insisted US House Rep David Roe sit in for him, which Roe did, however, Roe was not prepared -- as he more or less admitted. In the room, people seemed on edge as a result of Buyer's outburst. Again, it seemed genuine on Buyer's part. Again, it was harmful to himself. If he does have something -- if -- he can't reveal it so he is left looking like a hothead who lost it in a hearing and then stormed out.
Who was testifying? Iraq War veteran Sgt Chuck Luther and journalist Joshua Kors. Chuck Luther testified about the war and seeing friends he served with wounded and dead and came back to the US on leave where he had trouble coping and was glad to return to Iraq; however, nose bleeds, chest pain and other problems developed in Iraq. He sought counseling from a chaplain to deal with stress. A mortar attack by the tower he was guarding "threw me down and I hit my right shoulder and head. I had severe ringing in my right ear with clear fluid coming from it and had problems seeing out of my right eye." The pain continued and worsened:
After several days on suicide watch for making the comment that "if I had to live like this I would rather be dead," I asked to be sent somewhere where I could get help and to be able to understand what was wrong with me. I was told I could not go and I then demanded that I be taken to the Inspector General of the FOB. I was told by CPT Dewees that I was not going anywhere and he called for all the medics, roughtly 6 to 10. I was assaulted, held down and had my pants ripped off my left thigh and given an injection of something that put me to sleep. When I awoke, I was strapped down to a combta litter and had a black eye and cuts on my wrists from the zip ties. I eventually was untied and from that point forward for 5 weeks I was held in a room that was 6 feet by 8 feet that had bed pans, old blankets and other old supplies. I had to sleep on a combat litter and had a wool blanket. I was under guard 24/7 and on several occassions was told I was not allowed to use the phone or internet and, when I would take my meds and fall asleep, I was not awakened to get food. On one occasion, I had slept through chow and asked to be taken to the chow hall or PX to get some food. I was told no and given a fuel soaked MRE to eat. I was constantly called a piece of crap, a faker and other derogatory things. They kept the lights on and played all sorts of music from rap to heavy metal very loud all night -- the medics worked in shifts, therefore, they didn't sleep, they rotated. These are some of the same tactics that we would use on insurgents that we captured to break them to get information or confessions. I went through this for four weeks and the HHC Commander Cpt Wehri told me to sign this discharge and, that if I didn't, that they would keep me there for 6 more months and then kick me out when we got back to Fort Hood anyway. I said I didn't have a personality disorder and he told me that if I signed the paperwork that I would get back home and get help and I would have all my benefits. After the endless nights of sleep deprivation, harassment and abuse, I finally signed just to get out of there. I was broken.
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.
Chuck Luther told his story as he's told it publicly many times before. But for US House Rep Steve Buyer it was all new and shocking. Again, he claimed -- repeatedly -- to have documents detailing what really happened. He also savaged journalism, journalists and Josh Kors specifically. Although he referred to Kors repeatedly as "Reporter" and never by his name. After thanking Chuck Luther for being in the military, Buyer began referencing his documents.
Ranking Member Steve Buyer: I also have a lot of documents here that are about you that are non-disclosable. I'm not going to discuss them in public. So when you make statements, now you've made public statements, and I am not going to go into your personal life. I'm not going to discuss your military conditions. You've made certain statements and sitting to your left is a reporter that makes some very exaggerated statements. You've disadvantaged DoD. And guess what, they're going to come up here and they can't talk about your case, they can't come in here and talk about some of the things you have said. You've made some pretty strong statements that are not supported by what I have. And I'm disadvantaged also because, number one, I'm disadvantaged out of respect. I respect you, I respect your privacy. I also will say this. I would never -- when I was chairman of a subcommittee or full committee, put a reporter on a panel to testify. I would never do that. Why? Because your testimony is hearsay. It's hearsay. Everything you say, it's hearsay. What we're supposed to do is get to the bottom of things so we can understand them. You can make whatever allegations you want, you can lead us to our professional staff and then we can find that person so that the testimony is in first person. So I'd say to the gentleman, I'd say you can say whatever say and basically you have and you've surmised your opinion based on what you've seen and heard. But I think it's pretty shocking that you would even come here and provide testimony with regards to someone's medical condition. You're not a doctor. If you were a doctor, they'd knock you right upside your head for that. I'd be pretty upset if you went and testified about my medical condition in a public place. Let alone, where are your sensitivities to talk about a woman and her health. Wow. I-I'm pretty shocked that you would -- you would do that. So I'm going to yield back my time, Mr. Chairman. I-I-I just want you to know, sir [Chuck Luther], I respect you and I could do more than -- Gosh, I could go into this. But sir, uh, uhm, follow -- My advice to you is follow the counsel of some individuals that really have your interests at heart. And those doctors have your interests at heart. You're upset with regard to a diagnosis on your personality disorder. The PTSD, in fact, has been recognized. I have the records with regards to the findings from when you attempted to correct the military records and so I have seen everything they've said and I've seen the documents with regard to that process. I think what we want, we want you to get better. We want you to get better with regard to the PTSD. And-and please, uh, follow the counsel of your doctors and mental health professionals that take you, your interests best at heart. Not somebody else that may want to use you or use your case to write stories or do other things. If they truly had your interest at heart, they wouldn't take your case and what I know about you and put it on public display. That's Steve Buyer's opinion. I would never do that to a fellow soldier. With that I yield back.
Joshua Kors noted he had been investigating and researching this story for years and was offering a summarizing of the research he'd done, that he also had Chuck Luther's medical records, had spoken to people who observed Chuck Luther in confinement, spoken to his doctor, seen pictures, checked every aspect of the story out repeatedly, etc. "Nobody in this story," Kors explained, disputes what happened. The only question is what to do about it."
At which point Buyer went from lecturing to exploding about what can be said.
Ranking Member Steve Buyer: I have records in front of me!
Joshua Kors: All said what?
Ranking Member Steve Buyer: I'm not going to do this! I can't -- My integrity as a gentleman will not allow me to do this. Dr. Roe! Will you take this seat? I will not participate in this! I'm not going to do it! It's wrong!
A confused Rep Roe stands and moved towards the front while Buyer storms out. Kors explained that the soldiers speaking to him on the record wanted their stories told and that, of course, he wasn't divulging confidential information that no one wanted revealed.
Chuck Luther: Just what I'd like to say is this. I'm not here just about Chuck Luther. This is larger than I. I haven't made any statements that were inflamatory or lies. I wish I didn't have this story to tell but what I will tell you is that in the three years that I've been treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the medications I've been given and several of my doctors have all said to me at different intervals to make sure I continue to fight to have my discharge changed because it doesn't reflect what my injury is. I saw a licensed clinical social worker and a pediatrician in a combat theater for less than two hours of face time and was given the diagnosis of personality disorder. In doing studying over three years, that is impossible to diagnose at that interval. In fact, in the last three years, I've been treated -- prognosed and diagnosed for my PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury, my cognitive function disability. And if it were a case of a personality disorder, I think that those licensed psychologists and psychiatrists would have in fact have found a personality disorder and seeing that I've never in my life had any issues prior to being blown up in Iraq.
Chair Bob Filner had little patience for the government witnesses from DoD and Veterans Affairs on the fourth panel as they attempted to repeatedly dance around the questions. Even something as basic as how many people had been discharged with personality disorders was a figure they didn't know. He noted, "You're playing with words." After stating they had no numbers, they repeatedly refenced them and Chair Filner observed, "So how can you even tell me that -- I ask you guys for figures and you don't have them. You're making judgments based on your sense of figures." He noted the topic of the hearing was known and they were brought before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to testify on this subject; however, they were completely unprepared.
Things did not get better when Filner pursued an avenue he'd tackled on the other panels: Whether or not Chuck Luther was tortured? He directed the question on the fourth panel to DoD's General Gina Farrisee. Was it ever investigated?
Gen Gina Farrisee: Mr. Chairman, to my knowledge it was not. It first came out in the media it was referred to Fort Hood and I will have to follow up with them to see if
Chair Bob Filner: Man, if I were jyou, I would've jumped on it. We can't let something like that happen in the army. And if it's true, somebody's got to be punished and, if it's not true, that's got to be known too. People are making these public charges here where they're sworn to tell the truth, they've been in the newspaper and surely you'd be concerned if the army was accused of torturing its own soldiers, wouldn't you?
Gen Gina Farrisee: Yes, Mr. Chairman.
Chair Bob Filner: Would you find out if there was any investigation?
Gen Gina Farrisee: Yes, Mr. Chairman, I'll take that question for the record.
Speaking to the fourth panel at one point, Bob Filner pointed out that clearly there must be a problem or a perceived one with the original assessments if the military is claiming to have so many soldiers requiring personality disorders. (I just said "soldiers." Joshua Kors pointed out that the personality disorder discharge was not just happening in the army, it was happening in all four branches of the military.) If they believe the soldiers are being correctly discharged, then the military, Filner pointed out, should be working on fixing the initial assessment interview because clearly there would be a problem. In addition, Chair Filner noted he sounded frustrated because he was frustrated. He dismissed panel four and called Joshua Kors back from the first panel. Chair Filner: "I see you not as a person of hearsay but as someone who really understands this issue and is trying to do the best for our soldiers. What questions would you -- Or do you have any responses to some of the testimony you've heard since you testified this morning? Or what questions we should ask these panels?"
As to how many are being discharged for personality disorder, Kors maintained that soldiers taking their discharge papers to their initial VA screenings and the VA would be able to record that and keep an accurate number. He noted that Chuck Luther's VA doctors saw PTSD and not a personality disorder but DoD sent a letter to Luther stating that they are sticking with personality disorder.
Joshua Kors: So many soldiers come to me and say this discharge is like a scarlet letter they just can't wash off. In today's job economy, can you imagine going into a potential employer and handing them a paper saying you're mentally ill? You're just not going to get that job. And so that's how you end up with so many of these soldiers not just without benefits but also then broke and then homeless.
Kors also noted that service members discharged that way are also frequently asked to return signing bonuses and they've just lost their job via the discharge and now they've got to pay back money and this is how some service members end up homeless as well.

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