At the end of the longest period of war in American history, the number of soldiers being discharged from the Army for misconduct has risen steadily to its highest rate in recent times. Among the discharged are wounded combat troops, who, as a result of their other-than-honorable discharges, lose medical care and other veterans benefits.
The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo., found in an investigation of Army data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that annual misconduct discharges are up more than 25 percent Army-wide since 2009, mirroring the rise in wounded. Among combat troops, the increase is especially sharp. Since 2009, total discharges at the eight Army posts that house most of the service's combat units have surged 67 percent since 2009. The Gazette found the discharges include soldiers with multiple tours and diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injuries, or TBI.
"I've been working on this since the '70s, and I have never seen anything like this," said Mark Waple of the surge in discharges. He is a retired Army officer who now tries military cases as a civilian lawyer near Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "There seems to be a propensity to use minor misconduct for separation, even for service members who are decorated in combat and injured."
The Gazette found decades-old Army policies don't always accommodate or account for multiple deployments or behavior resulting from injuries suffered by today's soldiers.
Soldiers can be discharged for a range of misconduct, from tardiness to violent crimes. The Gazette found they were sometimes cut loose for small offenses that the Army acknowledges can be symptoms of TBI and PTSD.
"I see it every day," said Lenore Yarger, a veterans advocate near Fort Bragg. "We have gotten very efficient at getting people to fight wars but are not prepared to deal with the aftermath."
Several soldiers reported testing positive for drugs but were deployed anyway to combat zones because the Army needed the troops, the Gazette found. When they returned, they were discharged for the offense.
In other cases, the soldiers were discharged after suffering severe brain injuries in combat.
Kash Alvaro, a wounded combat soldier at Fort Carson, Colo., suffered from regular seizures from a traumatic brain injury after being in a bomb blast in Afghanistan that caused him to land on his head. He was discharged in January 2012 for a pattern of misconduct that included missing medical appointments and going AWOL for two weeks. He was discharged without even the medicine to stop his seizures. Because his other-than-honorable discharge bars him from veterans benefits, he soon became homeless and relied on the local hospital emergency room for care. He estimates he's been hospitalized 80 times since his discharge.
"It was like my best friend betrayed me," Alvaro said from a hospital bed. "I had given the Army everything, and they took everything away."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was not aware of any rise in misconduct discharges but disagreed that the military is using minor misconduct to discharge veterans.
"We go to great lengths to try to rehabilitate those who don't meet or maintain required standards prior to initiating separation proceedings," he said. "We may not get it right 100 percent of the time, but we work hard to identify at-risk troops in time for intervention and, failing that, carefully consider each case in context before separating someone."
An Army spokesman said the service does not track the number of soldiers wounded in war who are later kicked out.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson, who was Fort Carson's commander until March and is slated to become commander of Fort Bragg, also defended the Army's practices, saying the Army makes caring for soldiers a priority and that the number of injured who are discharged is "not a significant number." Still, he said, distinguishing injuries from misconduct is next to impossible.
"It's the hardest thing," he said. "We physically, literally struggle with it every day."
The Gazette found similar reports of wounded soldiers kicked out for misconduct for minor violations at Fort Bragg; Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Drum, N.Y.; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.
The rise in discharges is driven in part by a new type of war in which troops deploy repeatedly between stints at home, making them soldiers and veterans at once. Each time they deploy, studies show, their risk of developing PTSD and brain injuries rises, as does the risk of misconduct. But Army regulations require them to follow the strict rules of the active duty military.
In addition, after 10 years of war, the Army faces mandated budget cuts and orders to reduce the force. Defense spending has increased steadily since 2001, but began to decline in 2012, according to the Congressional Budget Office, dropping $33 billion last year, according to the CBO, and is slated to decrease an additional $36 billion due to mandated budget cuts in the next year. The Army must draw down by at least 80,000 troops by 2017. In response, the Army has tightened discipline standards. The Marines face similar drawdown pressure.
Army commanders are already exceeding their drawdown goals, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler told Army Times in April, adding, "I'm proud of the fact that our solders, our leaders, are being engaged in this and taking action." Chandler did not respond to requests for an interview.
Observers say the cuts too often fall on soldiers whose performance has slipped because of invisible wounds.
People inside the Army and out say injured soldiers can be a burden to combat units, which want to get rid of them quickly. The medical discharge process typically takes more than a year, so units sometimes push for a quicker misconduct discharge.
Fort Bliss soldier Eric McIntosh was deployed twice to Iraq with an infantry battalion. When he was diagnosed with PTSD and checked into a psychiatric hospital for being suicidal in 2012, his commander decided to kick him out for a pattern of misconduct.
"My patterns were that I missed three medical appointments when I was hospitalized," McIntosh said.
He appealed to an Army board, which agreed he should be kicked out. He was spared only after sending a letter to top Pentagon officials.
"I still have issues, problems. I'm still coping with stuff," McIntosh said. "I'm just more reluctant to get help."