Dallas Morning News

Congressional Investigation: Army Needs to Do Better Job Caring for Injured Soldiers

A report from the investigative arm of Congress finds the U.S. Army needs to do a better job of caring for injured soldiers in special units set up to care for troops wounded in combat, or who become seriously ill or injured in noncombat situations.

Congress ordered the report after NBC 5 Investigates and The Dallas Morning News revealed hundreds of injured soldiers had complained of harassment, abuse and a lack of care from the commanders of warrior transition units or WTUs.

The Congressional report found the following:

  • Soldiers' complaints of mistreatment are not always reaching top Army officials with oversight of the Warrior Transition Units.
  • The Army is not doing enough to ensure that squad leaders and platoon sergeants selected to run the units are suited for the sensitive and complex mission.
  • The Army needs to evaluate whether the current model for treating injured warriors is best equipped for dealing with the increasing numbers of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral health problems.

More than a thousand miles from Washington D.C. in Frankston, Texas, the report feels like some vindication to retired Army Master Sgt. Ken Adams.

"I knew I was right about how a lot of stuff was being done and how a lot of soldiers' lives were being impacted," Adams said.

Adams is one of many injured soldiers who complained of mistreatment from commanders of Army Warrior Transition Units or WTUs -- where ill and injured troops are sent to rehab while still on active duty.

At Fort Hood's WTU, Adams said commanders fought against his doctor's recommendations - denying him treatments for debilitating back and leg pain that were the result of training injuries.

"It was literally like having a gang of people against you. It never once felt that there was a group of people that were combining resources as an advocate," said Adams.

When he filed complaints -- the 25-year Army veteran says commanders threatened him and suggested he was just trying to get a bigger Army pension.

"[I] was just another dirt bag looking for a meal ticket," he said.

In 2014, NBC 5 Investigates uncovered hundreds of similar complaints, many from injured troops struggling with post traumatic stress after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Within days of our first reports, the Army ordered new sensitivity training for commanders at all WTUs worldwide.

And the House Armed Services Committee ordered a sweeping investigation.

The Government Accountability Office visited WTUs across the country.

It concluded the Army needs to do a better job of overseeing those units.

The GOA report says some complaints from injured troops were not being forwarded to senior leaders.

Given this, the report says the Army, "may not be able to identify and address potential systemic issues concerning the WTUs."

Robin Howard was one of the first military wives to speak out publicly about problems in the WTUs.

"It was like banging your head into a brick wall everyday," Howard said.

In 2014, Howard and her husband, Army Specialist Michael Howard told NBC 5 Investigates their complaints seemed to fall on deaf ears.

They felt commanders seemed to lack training they needed to help - as Michael Howard struggled with early on-set dementia and post traumatic stress.

"Better trained leadership - if you're going to be in charge of soldiers - you need to deserve to be in charge of soldiers," Michael Howard said at the time.

Just months after that interview with NBC 5, Michael Howard died.

Today, his concerns are echoed in that new GAO report.

It states "three of the five sites [the GAO] visited [WTU commanders] stated that they were not sufficiently prepared for their positions after taking the required training."

"I can't even find the words. I knew that there was a problem and for them to acknowledge it is astounding, amazing and wonderful," Robin Howard said.

She believes now it's time for the Army and Congress to fix the problems.

The chairman of the House of Armed Services is vowing to make that happen.

"So, we take up their findings and basically go from there - to dig deeper where we need to - to hold the Army's feet to the fire on improvements," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Thornberry says he's concerned the report found a higher percentage of soldiers at the WTUs have behavioral health challenges.

Yet the report says the Army has not assessed the effectiveness of its care model for those soldiers.

"The bottom line for me is they're making improvements, but it's not enough and part of our job in Congress is to stay on the issues and to push the Army to do more," Thornberry said.

In a letter to the GAO, the Army said it concurs with the GAO report and agrees to make changes.

Some of the changes the Army has agreed to include:

  • Establishing a new process to make sure complaints reach senior leaders.
  • Setting up a new system to assess training for commanders and make changes to their training course as needed.
  • Launching a review of their current care model for soldiers with behavioral health challenges.

"The findings contained in the GAO report were not unexpected and their recommendations offered several solid ways for us to continue to refine our program to be the nation's premier organization for the recovery and transition of soldiers with complex care requirements," the Army's medical command told NBC 5.

Back in Frankston, Texas, Ken Adams is hopeful the report will bring change -- for future troops.

"There is enough in that report where they can start figuring out accountability," Adams said.

But for him, it's too late to change what's already happened.

He retired from the Army in 2013.

He finally got a morphine pump and a spinal stimulator implanted in his body, paying some of the costs out of his own pocket, for treatments he says the Army delayed.

He says he lost much of his mobility waiting for care and he still struggles with pain that's left him unable to work.

He wonders if things might have been different if his complaints had been treated differently.

"What if somebody else would have stepped up earlier in the game? Maybe our life wouldn't be in rough shards that it is," Adams said.

The Army declined to comment on Ken Adams' case - citing medical privacy rules.

As a result of the previous NBC 5/The Dallas Morning News reports, commanders at WTUs worldwide still have to go through sensitivity training every three months.

Some soldiers have said the training seems to have helped reduce mistreatment - and commanders seem to be more careful not to disrespect doctor's orders.

But the GAO report indicates there's still more to be done.

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