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article imageOp-Ed: Military accused of making false diagnoses to save billions

By Bill Lindner     Apr 22, 2010 in Politics
The military has been accused of falsely diagnosing -- and in at least one case using sleep deprivation -- some vets injured during their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with personality disorder to keep from paying billions of dollars in medical costs
The diagnosis of personality disorder (PD) has been falsely -- apparently somewhat regularly -- used to discharge veterans injured during their tours of duty to keep the military from having to pay billions of dollars in medical claims. Apparently, using more than half of all U.S. taxpayer dollars to fund the never-ending occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan by the military, which spends more than $700 billion per year, isn't enough.
Sergeant Chuck Luther's life exploded during his seventh month of deployment at Camp Taji, twenty miles north of Baghdad, when the tower he was standing guard in was hit by a mortar shell, throwing him to the floor. His head slammed against the concrete. As he lay there in the Iraqi heat with his nose leaking clear fluid, he was nauseous, his teeth hurt, his shoulder hurt and his right ear was killing him. After picking himself up and finishing his shift, he took some ibuprofen to kill the pain.
Sgt. Luther, who joined the Army in 1988, was determined to finish his mission, but his body was basically broken. His shoulder pain persisted, and the hearing in his right ear, which he lost on impact of the mortar, never returned, being replaced instead by the hum of tinnitus.
Then came the headaches. They would reportedly start with a speckling in the corner of his vision which grew worse and worse until the right eye would finally just shut down and go blank. It felt like he was being repeatedly stabbed in his left eye. Doctors at Camp Taji told Luther he was faking his symptoms. When Luther kept insisting he wasn't faking it, the doctors diagnosed his blindness as personality disorder (PD).
The Nation has reported on the fraudulent use of personality disorder to discharge wounded soldiers for the past three years. 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.
Military Saves Billions Discharging Soldiers Diagnosed with PD
The military uses a diagnosis of PD to deny lifetime disability benefits that the military is required to provide to soldiers like Luther who are wounded during service. When soldiers are discharged with PD, they are also denied long-term medical care. If that's not enough, soldiers discharged with PD are required to give back part of their re-enlistment bonuses, which if oftentimes larger than their final paychecks. Consequently, when soldiers diagnosed with PD are discharged, they could end up owing the Military several thousand dollars.
Figures from the Pentagon and a Harvard University study show that the military saves billions of dollars by discharging soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan with PD. A bill from then-Senator Barack Obama to halt PD discharges failed to pass, and a law signed by then-President Bush required the defense secretary to investigate the PD discharge system. Naturally, the defense department concluded that no soldiers had been wrongly discharged.
More than 22,600 soldiers have been discharged with PD since 2001. That figure includes Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that have served two and three tours of duty in those countries. Sergeant Luther's case highlights the severe consequences of the military's fraudulent actions that are faced by soldiers if they question their diagnoses and oppose their discharges.
Sgt. Luther reportedly insisted to doctors at Camp Taji that he did not have PD, that the idea of developing a childhood mental illness at the age of 36, after passing eight psychological screenings, was ridiculous. When Luther told doctors that some days he was in so much pain that he felt like dying, the doctors declared him a suicide risk, collected his shoelaces, his belt and his rifle, and ordered him confined to an isolation chamber.
The extensive medical records written by Luther's doctors detail his confinement in the aid station for more than a month. Luther was kept under twenty-four-hour guard. Most nights, guards enforced sleep deprivation, keeping lights on and blasting heavy metal music. When Luther rebelled, he would be pinned down and injected with sleeping medication.
Sign PD Discharge Papers or Face More Time in Isolation
After more than a month, Luther was brought to his commander who told him he had a choice: sign papers saying his medical problems stemmed from PD, or face more time in isolation.
After the May 2007 mortar attack, Luther entered the base's clinic and described his concussion symptoms to Capt. Aaron Dewees, a pediatrician who allegedly was charged with caring for soldiers. Dewees was suspicious of Luther's self-report, writing in Luther's medical records that in his professional opinion, Sgt. Charles F. Luther Jr. was misrepresenting himself for secondary gain. Dewees suggested that Luther was faking his ailments to avoid his duties, calling the sergeant 'narcissistic' and saying Luther's descriptions of his injuries were a mixture of 'exaggeration and flat-out fabrication.'
Severe nosebleeds, and 'sharp and burning' pain are documented in Luther's medical records. Still his doctors didn't believe him. Finally, after being frustrated and plagued by blinding migraines, Luther spoke of pain so severe that he wished he was dead. Luther made it clear that he wasn't going to kill himself, he was just using that expression to explain how much pain he was in. Dewees documented a 'suicide gesture' and 'off-handed comments' about Luther killing himself, but wrote that those gestures were unlikely to result in Luther trying to kill himself. Regardless, Dewees wrote that Luthers' statements must be taken seriously and treated as such, and the Luther remained a threat to himself and others given his need for attentions, narcissistic tendencies and impulsive behavior.
The isolation chamber Luther was put in -- which he captured a picture of on his digital camera -- served as a walk-in closet. It was slightly larger than an Army cot, crammed with cardboard boxes, a desk and a bedpan. A small, cracked window offered a look out onto the base. Guards monitored sergeant Luther through the open doorway.
Dewees and Lt. Col. Larry Applewhite, an aid station social worker, declared Luther to be mentally ill, suffering from a personality disorder. The next step was to remove Luther from the military as quickly as possible. Applewhite wrote a that Luther should be administratively separated via Chapter 5-13, the official discharge code for PD. In a separate statement, Dewees endorsed the Chapter 5-13 discharge and urged that it be handled rapidly.
Broken Down by Isolation, Sleep Deprivation and Harassed by Other Soldiers
That didn't happen. Luther reportedly remained in his six-by-eight-foot isolation chamber for more than a month. Guards ridiculed him and most nights enforced sleep deprivation, keeping his lights on all night and using a nearby Xbox and TV speakers to blast heavy metal into his room. Luther tried pulling a blanket over his head to block out the noise and the light, but it didn't work. Guards also abused Luther verbally, telling him he wasn't a real soldier, that he was a piece of crap.
Isolated, exhausted, and being confined for being mentally ill made Luther begin feeling that way. He finally snapped. He stepped out of his room and began walking toward a senior official's office when an altercation broke out. Luther bit one of his guards, then spit in the face of the aid station chaplain. After being pinned to the floor, Luther was injected with Haldol and returned to isolation.
Luther was eventually taken to Major Wehri's office. Wehri was Luther's commander who told Luther he had the PD discharge papers. Luther was told if he signed the paperwork, he would get out. Luther was threatened with being there a lot longer if he didn't sign the paperwork.
Being held in isolation, intentionally subject to sleep deprivation and harassed by his peers broke Luther down. He signed the papers because he just wanted to get home. Wehri was smiling when Luther signed the discharge papers.
Soon after signing the papers, Luther was placed on a DC-10 and whisked back to Fort Hood where he learned about the chapter 5-13's fine print: he was ineligible for disability benefits, since his condition was pre-existing and he would not be receiving the lifetime of medical care given to severely wounded soldiers. Because he didn't complete his contract, he had to return $1,500 -- part of his signing bonus. Luther found out that if he didn't pay, he'd have his wages garnished and assessed interest would be added.
PD Label Detrimental to Many Soldiers Adjusting to Civilian Life
Luther's case is only one of more than two dozen cases from bases all across the country uncovered by the Nation in the past three years. All the soldiers involved were examined, deemed physically and psychologically fit, and accepted into the military. None had a documented history of psychological problems. All performed honorably before being wounded during service. Yet after seeking treatment for their wounds, each soldier examined was diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder, then discharged and denied benefits.
That group includes a soldier whose hands and legs were punctured by grenade shrapnel, a soldier who fractured her pelvis and two bones in her ankle, and a soldier who developed an inflamed uterus during her service. All were diagnosed with personality disorder, discharged and denied benefits.
Veterans for Common Sense says the personality disorder issue is more than neglect. It's malice. They're right. A bill from Senator Obama did nothing but end up being a watered down amendment that required the Pentagon to investigate PD dismissals and report back to Congress after it was added as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that was signed by President Bush in January 2008.
Unsurprisingly, a short time later, a report from Secretary of Defense David Chu -- appointed by President Bush -- with the Pentagon's conclusions claimed that no soldiers had been improperly diagnosed, and none had been wrongly discharged. None of the discharged soldiers were interviewed by Chu, nor were their families, doctors or commanders.
Being labeled with PD by the military has proved detrimental to many of the soldiers who have tried adjusting to civilian life. Many can't find jobs and are homeless because of being diagnosed with PD. It's a bad situation that needs to be fixed. These soldiers deserve more than that. A lot more information can be found in the 'Disposable Soldier' report from The Nation.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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