Two of the nation’s largest veteran’s organizations want Congress and the Pentagon to take action after NBC 5 Investigates’ Injured Heroes, Broken Promises investigation found hundreds of injured soldiers have complained of mistreatment, harassment and verbal abuse inside the Army’s Warrior Transition Units (WTUs) that were designed to help active duty soldiers heal.
NBC 5 Investigates partnered with The Dallas Morning News for a six-month investigation to uncover stunning allegations described by soldiers recovering in Texas from the wounds of war.
“Congress needs to be more involved in the oversight process. They need to hold congressional hearings and they need to codify some of the policies that affect wounded warrior care,” said Senior Legislative Associate at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Brendon Gehrke.
The VFW said it's heard directly from soldiers at WTUs with stories of mistreatment similar to those reported by NBC 5 Investigates and The Dallas Morning News.
“Really seeing horror stories coming out of Texas,” said Gehrke.
The VFW believes the Pentagon needs to restructure to make WTU commanders report more directly to people at the top.
“Starting off at the Pentagon and falling down the ladder in the chain of command there's really not enough robust oversight,” said Gehrke
Another group representing more than 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans also plans to request meetings with the Department of Defense to talk about the issues NBC 5 and The Dallas Morning News uncovered.
InvestigativeTexas Congressman Frustrated by WTU Complaints
“Seeing the quantity of these complaints is concerning and really emphasizes the need to focus on this more; this isn't one complaint here or two complaints there,” said Chris Neiweem, Legislative Associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
IAVA wants the Pentagon to reassess the conduct of the commanders in charge of the WTU's.
“We need to keep focusing on these WTU issues and hearing these men and women out,” said Neiweem.
In response, the Department of Defense said taking care of its service members and their families is among the department's highest priorities.
"To that end, OSD [Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense] leadership meets regularly with leaders in the VSO/MSO [veterans' service organizations and military service organizations] community in the interest of providing for our troops' well-being. We value this collaborative relationship and look forward to our continued work together on issues of concern," the defense department's statement continued.
Army leaders told NBC 5 Investigates they already respond quickly to complaints and insist mistreatment is not widespread.
“I don't see a pervasive problem out there when it comes to treating our soldiers and family members with dignity and respect,” said Col. Chris Toner, U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command.
But veterans groups worry real stories of soldiers are not getting to commanders at the top.
“So they may hear that everything is rosy but that's not the reality on the ground,” said Gehrke.
“I think a lot of these people who are making these complaints are not making their complaints clear enough,” said Eric Velasquez, U.S. Army, retired.
Velasquez was injured in Iraq and Afghanistan and just left the Fort Bliss WTU in September.
He says unit leaders treated him well, but he saw other wounded soldiers harassed by the cadre that run the unit.
“I know one guy when he got there, he was cadre, just wouldn't stop cursing, cursing at the soldiers and this and that,” said Velasquez
Velasquez said commanders eventually removed that leader but others just seemed oblivious to the needs of the injured.
‘There's some people in there in the leadership that don't understand some of the issues that these guys are having from combat,” said Velasquez
Issues two veterans groups want to take on by pushing Congress and the Pentagon to do better for soldiers who put their lives on the line.
“These men and women have done too much for us to just sort of let this fall by the wayside,” said Neiweem.
Both veterans groups told NBC 5 Investigates that the Pentagon needs to speed up the process for evaluating injured soldiers. Currently paperwork can take a year or two, leaving soldiers at the WTU longer without a plan for the future and increasing anxiety and stress.
The Warrior Transition Command responded to the remarks from both veterans organizations in a written statement saying, “WTC always welcomes input from military and veteran service organizations and appreciates the support they provide wounded, ill and injured soldiers and their families."
"We work and train to prevent abuse and disrespect as part of cadre training, leader development and understanding and living the Army Values each day," the WTC said.