NBC 5 Investigates found hundreds of injured soldiers complain of harassment and verbal abuse inside the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit’s (WTUs) that were designed to help active duty soldiers heal.
Now, more questions have surfaced about how the Army chooses WTU commanders and how much training they’re receiving to care for injured soldiers.
NBC 5 Investigates teamed up 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.
Spc. Michael Howard returned home to Texas Dec. 24, 2011. It was the moment every family waits for. “Life was perfect that day,” said Robin Howard, Michael’s wife.
But for Robin and Michael Howard, the homecoming wasn’t the happy ending it appeared to be.
Michael Howard served as an Army medic in Southeastern Iraq and the images of combat traveled home with him.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress he tried to erase the memories by self-medicating with alcohol to get rid of the pain.
The Army sent Howard to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Hood, which is one of more than 20 special units created across the country to treat mentally and physically injured soldiers.
When Howard first arrived at the unit he said he was expecting to find relief but instead found nothing but stress.
Howard said the WTU medical staff tried to help but the unit’s non-medical commanders treated him more like a drunk and a troublemaker who needed to be punished, not a soldier suffering from PTSD who needed compassion.
He said commanders told him to “man-up” and “get over it,” even calling him degrading and offensive names.
NBC5 Investigates and The Dallas Morning news uncovered Army records showing hundreds of injured soldiers complained of harassment, disrespect and a lack of care from WTU commanders at Fort Hood, Fort Bliss and Fort Sam Houston over the last five years. Many of the complaints describe commanders ordering injured soldiers to do things that contradict their doctor’s orders.
In one recent example an injured soldier complained doctors ordered him to take medication at 9 p.m. and get eight hours of rest, but then commanders put him on overnight guard duty. Others report being forced to drive to early morning military formations while sedated on medications.
Michael Howard believes the Army failed to choose commanders who understand medical needs or failed to train them for jobs where the mission is healing and compassion, not combat.
“If you're going to be in charge of soldiers you need to deserve to be in charge of soldiers,” Michael Howard said.
NBC 5 Investigates has learned a Pentagon Inspector General Report this summer also found "systemic issues and challenges with the selection and training of leaders" at WTU's across the country.
For years WTU leaders got only two weeks of training and just a couple of hours on mental health conditions like PTSD.
Jennifer Lawrence, a trainer with the U.S. Army who oversees the training nationwide, said two weeks was enough to get leaders started and that the Army responded to criticisms in the Inspector General's report by hiring more staff to create smaller classes. She said they also added a week of "resilience training" that’s designed to prepare WTU leaders for the stresses of caring for the injured.
“Once that foundation is laid they should continue to educate once they get to their WTU',” said Lawrence.
“You know you have nightmares,” said Sgt. Ngala Benn, a former squad leader at Fort Hood’s WTU, when describing PTSD.
The Army put him in charge of injured soldiers even though he too was suffering from PTSD and taking 20 prescribed medications after serving in Iraq.
“You're trying to re-live the stuff and you get up in the middle of the night and you're sleepwalking with a weapon in your hand or you can't sleep unless you have that weapon next to you,” recalled Benn.
Benn said in hindsight he was surprised he was put in charge of a dozen soldiers dealing with similar problems and doesn’t think he should have ever been put in that leadership position given what he was dealing with at the time.
Fort Hood's new WTU commander told NBC 5 Investigates that he did not have information to comment on Benn's case but said, "PTSD is no longer viewed as a condition precluding someone from carrying out the duties and responsibilities as a cadre member (or leader) in the WTU...."
With Benn, the Army eventually removed him from leadership and made him a patient in the WTU. Benn said leaders cared for him with compassion and commanders dealt swiftly with one leader he saw harassing injured soldiers.
“You know he was always cursing at the soldiers and yelling at them, and the soldiers didn't like that, and the chain of command saw that and he was moved out of that position,” said Benn.
Every Army commander NBC 5 Investigates spoke to said they have no tolerance for harassment or verbal abuse
“No soldier, period, should be belittled or harassed,” said Col. Kyle Campbell who has overseen the Fort Sam Houston WTU.
But Campbell said many soldiers with behavioral health problems need accountability and discipline and Army doctors find, for some soldiers, structure and accountability are therapeutic.
When asked if there’s a risk that too much discipline might risk increasing stress in recovering soldiers, Campbell said there is that risk in any situation but that he didn’t believe it was a problem.
“Does it occur,” Campbell said. “I am sure it’s happened more than once.”
In Washington, top WTU commanders acknowledge past problems but do not believe mistreatment is widespread.
Col. Chris Toner, head of the Army’s Warrior Transition Command said he isn’t concerned by the volume of complaints because filing a complaint is “an avenue of approach that a soldier can go through to get his or her issue resolved.” He said the Army quickly addresses and resolves those complaints.
To Michael Howard, it felt like his complaints only brought more punishment and extra duty.
“How many cigarette butts did I pick up? How many floors did I sweep or mop,” said Howard.
Then earlier this year, Howard received a shocking diagnosis. Doctors discovered he has more than PTSD. He has early onset dementia that threatens to cut his life short.
“I'm so ready to go. I'm not suicidal or anything like that, but I'm so ready to go,” said Howard.
Howard’s wife, Robin, said she asked commanders to give him a break from work and military formations but got nowhere.
“And of course the more I spoke out, the more they seemed to punish him -- to find ways to make his life a little harder,” said Robin Howard.
Michael Howard medically retired from the WTU this summer feeling discarded.
He still loves the Army, but not the WTU commanders assigned to care for him at the end of his career.
“These wounded soldiers need a break. They need help, they need compassion. They need a lot more than what they were getting at WTU,” said Robin Howard.
Officials at Fort Hood told NBC 5 Investigates they did not have information to comment on Howard’s story but they say there have been no additional complaints of mistreatment since a new commander arrived this summer.
NBC 5 and the Dallas Morning News will continue to investigate the care of our injured soldiers.