Commanding General: “It was wrong …”
NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – A CBS 11 I-Team investigation has uncovered a pattern of complaints by soldiers at a Texas Army post, triggering an outside review of the facility and drawing a promise from the commanding general that improvements are underway.
A soldier and two former soldiers told the I-Team they did not receive adequate care, and were even ridiculed, at the Army’s Fort Bliss post in El Paso after they tried to get help for severe emotional problems, including Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
“They didn’t care. They were just sitting around waiting for me to kill myself,” said Darren Kiefer, a former medic at Fort Bliss.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, told the I-Team’s Jason Allen she has heard from more than 30 current and former soldiers who say they were turned away by the Army when they attempted to get help for service-related injuries, including PTSD and TBI.
While those reports have come from across the country, nearly half originated at Fort Bliss, the Army’s second largest installation with 30,000 soldiers.
Granger told the I-Team her office, led by caseworker Danielle Gonzalez, has had a hard time getting answers from the Army – from Fort Bliss to the Pentagon – about the welfare of American soldiers.
“That’s why we kept asking and asking and asking, to build these cases, help these people,” Granger said in an exclusive interview with CBS 11.
She said her office has seen repeated cases where soldiers, emotionally wounded by combat, have been discharged from the Army without full benefits because they were diagnosed with “personality disorders” unrelated to their service in the military.
In other cases, soldiers remain on active duty even though they’ve shown signs of mental trauma, Granger said.
“One of the men who was judged fit for duty woke up in his own vomit in his bed from an attempted suicide,” she said. “And he’s still (considered) fit for duty.”
“These are our heroes …to treat them, or not treat them I guess I should say, is just astonishing. It makes me so ashamed of what we’re doing,” Granger said.
Gen. Dana Pittard, the commander of Fort Bliss, said he has initiated new measures at the base to help detect soldiers who are having problems.
“People are dealing with different things. Some it’s PTSD. Some it’s other stresses. Get the chain of command involved early, right away …that’s made a difference,” Pittard told the I-Team.
In referring to Sgt. Allen Hill, a former North Texas police officer who remains in the Army, the general acknowledged: “It was wrong how he was treated.”
Hill, a veteran in both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, was sent to Fort Bliss for treatment after suffering from a brain injury in combat. But he said the command staff at the post, instead, insisted he had a heart problem, unrelated to his combat time, and that he needed a pacemaker.
Hill said he was later jumped by two officers on the post after his wife complained to Granger’s office that he was not getting the treatment he needed. “I felt the knife-edge of his forearm come across my Adam’s apple, and I immediately responded to that …I broke free of that hold and I punched him twice,” he said of one of his two alleged attackers.
The encounter led to Hill being jailed for a period of time on the post, while the other two officers were not immediately punished. However, Gen. Pittard said the other officers have since been reprimanded and demoted.
On another occasion, Hill said no one immediately came to his aid when he became sick and collapsed on the hot asphalt of a Fort Bliss parking lot.
“It’s amazing, I survived gunfights back home, combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these jokers are going to sit here and let me die in the middle of a parking lot on one of the biggest posts in the United States Army,” he said.
CBS 11’s I-Team has also obtained the Army’s investigative report of what conditions were like at Fort Bliss, especially in the Wounded Warrior Transition Unit, during Hill’s time there, from late 2011 through most of last year.
The report said the review found that ranking officers would make fun of soldiers in wheelchairs; wounded soldiers were met with a “toxic” environment; and soldiers needing help were told to “keep their mouth shut.”
The I-Team also talked to a veteran therapist in El Paso who said soldiers are still wary of reporting their emotional problems at Fort Bliss.
“They seem to feel bullied for needing counseling. Or they would be made fun of, basically kind of ostracized or made to feel kind of less than (normal),” said the therapist, who asked not to be identified because she continues to counsel soldiers at the post.
John Breese told CBS 11 he knows how it feels to be called out by commanding officers at Fort Bliss. Breese was sent there, with symptoms of PTSD, after participating in hundreds of combat missions for the Army in Iraq.
“At Fort Bliss, it was, ‘You’re wrong. You don’t have any of these problems. You’re a coward …,’ “ said Breese, who, after going AWOL, was discharged from the Army without full benefits and now lives in Fort Worth.
He told the I-Team, “I would rather go back to Iraq any day than go back to Fort Bliss.”