New Records Show Injured Soldiers Describe Mistreatment Nationwide From Commanders at Army Warrior Transition Units (WTUs)

North Carolina’s Fort Bragg records the most complaints, Texas not far behind

New Army records uncovered by NBC 5 Investigates show injured soldiers have filed more than 1,100 complaints about mistreatment, abuse and lack of care from their commanders at more than two dozen Warrior Transition Units (WTUs) nationwide, many of those in Texas.

Those are just complaints made over five years to the U.S. Army ombudsman program, one of many places soldiers can complain.

Last fall, NBC 5 Investigates and The Dallas Morning News first revealed hundreds of complaints from ill and injured active duty soldiers in Texas.

Learn more about the background of this story here.

Those Texas soldiers said WTU commanders harassed, belittled them and ordered them to do things that made their conditions worse at three Army posts in Texas: Fort Hood, Fort Bliss and Fort Sam Houston.

Now the new records, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, show the WTU at Fort Hood had the second highest number of complaints about WTU commanders with more than 140 over five years. The WTU at Fort Bragg in North Carolina had the most complaints in the nation, more than 160.

In all, seven WTU’s had at least 71 complaints about leadership over five years, including Fort Bliss. That’s the post where the Army Col. Chris Toner, commander of the U.S. Army’s Warrior Transition Command has previously said there were serious problems, “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

In a hearing on Capitol Hill in February, Toner acknowledged past incidents of, “disrespect, harassment and belittlement of soldiers” at WTUs in Texas from 2009 to 2013.

The new records show similar complaints nationwide. And the records illustrate that complaints persisted through 2013 and beyond, despite the Army’s efforts to better train WTU staff and eliminate abusive behavior.

  • At Fort Carson in 2014, a recovering soldier describes a "hostile work environment" in their complaint.
  • At Fort Knox in 2013, an injured soldier complains, "The leadership ... does not care about soldiers, treats them like garbage and talks down to them."
  • November 2013, at Fort Irwin, the soldier complains, "The unit is dysfunctional and is causing more stress to (injured) soldiers than they are helping.”
NBC 5 News

“This is a national issue. It's a national shame”, said Andrew Pogány, chief executive officer and co-founder of Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group/USJAG, a nonprofit that helps injured soldiers fight back against abuse.

“Those who have honorably served this nation are being -- a certain percentage of them -- are being mistreated,” said Pogány.

For months the Army has insisted any abuse is not widespread, telling Congress problems have been fixed.

“I am satisfied that the program is on track and where it needs to be,” said Toner, at an Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee hearing in Washington D.C. in February 2015.

During an interview last year, Toner told NBC 5 Investigates he thought the complaints were isolated cases.

“The mission is to heal. But that's not what I received,” said Army National Guard Capt. Beverly Sweeney.

Sweeney filed an ombudsman complaint at Fort Lewis in Washington State saying it felt like WTU commanders were, "conspiring against her and creating roadblocks at every turn."

“It was very painful. I believe in the military. I'm a military brat. My husband served. My mother served,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney has served for more than 35 years and is still on active duty recovering from a series of physical injuries, one requiring care from a specialist the Army didn't have at Fort Lewis.

But Sweeney said WTU commanders unfairly blocked her from using this policy that allows soldiers with special needs to request a transfer to receive better treatment closer to home.

Meanwhile, she said WTU commanders forced her to do things that caused new injuries.

“I was exhausted and in agony,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney also describes witnessing WTU commanders pushing other injured soldiers beyond their physical limits -- some forced to work overnight guard duty -- in spite of being on medications that made them drowsy.

Sweeney believed commanders were breaking Army rules, and she knew a few things about those rules because she helped write some of them.

As an Army nurse she once worked at the Warrior Transition Command in Washington, developing policies to protect WTU soldiers.

“(The policies) are not implemented the way it's intended. That's what I observed,” said Sweeney.

The Army declined to answer questions about Sweeney's case citing health care privacy rules.

“So this notion that it's isolated is a joke,” said Pogány.

Pogány points out the Army's own investigations have found serious problems at WTU's from coast to coast. He believes if the Army would dig deeper it would find connections between the cases.

“They will find commonalities. They will find the same practices the same types of abuse,” said Pogány.

A recent investigation at Fort Carson revealed an Army psychiatrist was "confrontational, demeaning and unprofessional," toward a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.

At Fort Bragg in 2012, another investigation found WTU commanders lacked empathy and training.

A separate investigation is now underway at Fort Hood after NBC 5 Investigates and The Dallas Morning News first reported stories in November of soldiers describing abusive commanders.

“The longer we keep peddling the story that it’s isolated, the longer the system will be incapable and unwilling to correct problems,” said Pogány.

The Army said only a tiny fraction of WTU soldiers have complained and complaints are decreasing.

From 2010 to 2014 ombudsman complaints averaged about 250 per year. In the first 10 months of 2014 the records show just 132 complaints filed. But in 2014, there were about half as many soldiers in WTU's as there were in 2012.

In a statement the Army told NBC 5 Investigates, “The U.S. Army Medical Command remains committed to our goal of eliminating any form of harassment, belittlement or sub-standard care to all soldiers..."

If those things happen, the Army says it immediately takes corrective action.

“There's nothing they can do to make this up. There's no amount of "sorrys" that are going to fix what they did,” said Robin Howard.

For Howard, it's personal. She and her husband, Spc. Michael Howard, were among the first to speak out in Texas.

Last year, he described Fort Hood commanders who berated and belittled him as he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and early on-set dementia that ravaged his body.

“I'm done fighting. Got no fight left in me,” said Michael in an interview last fall.

Michael died in February 2015 and his family honored him with a service in Minnesota. In his obituary they wrote, " … his illness has helped bring to light the mistreatment of our wounded warriors."

After months of fighting, Sweeney finally got that transfer to a community care unit.

But as an Army nurse who dedicated her career to helping the injured, she struggles to understand why she was left feeling abandoned when she needed care.

“I gave my heart and soul, I really did. And I believe in the system. I believe that we can correct it. And that the powers that be have the potential to improve the system,” Sweeney said.

Army Surgeon General Patricia Horoho and Secretary of the Army John McHugh both declined to be interviewed for this report. McHugh said he could not comment because of the ongoing investigation at the Fort Hood WTU. At a briefing in Washington McHugh recently hinted to reporters that more WTU changes may be coming.

The 1,100 ombudsman complaints are not the whole story. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NBC5 is also starting to receive reports from the Army Inspector General detailing more complaints in Texas; and an earlier FOIA request revealed hundreds of additional complaints from WTU soldiers made directly to unit commanders in meetings or online.

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