Chaptered Out of Benefits

Jerrald Jensen joined the Army when he was 34, and called to duty, his wife says, by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  In 2006, he deployed to Iran, where he was the driver for a commander in his unit. By all accounts, he was an exemplary soldier.

In the fall of 2007, his patrol was attacked, and an explosive blew off part of his face and pierced his body with shrapnel. Jensen still managed to drive away from the attack, saving his commander before being shot in the arm and back. That incident resulted in a Purple Heart.

Doctors spent two years, and 16 surgeries, rebuilding his jaw with titanium.  After all that, Jensen volunteered for a second combat tour, this time in Afghanistan.  Six months into his tour, he fell while running to a gun post and again broke his jaw. Doctors did their best to patch him up, but half of Jensen’s face was permanently numb, and he lost his remaining teeth. He felt he’d had enough. Soon, he was transferred to the Warrior Transition Unit, a special unit in Fort Carson, Colo., set up to help wounded active-duty soldiers heal and transition into civilian life.

Once there, WTU commanders seemed bent on getting rid of him. He said they wrote him up for minor infractions, like showing up late to a medical appointment, or making an incomplete stop at a stop sign. Then, on a routine urine test, Jensen came up positive for amphetamines. He had been prescribed the decongestant pseudoephedrine and narcotics for his injuries, which can cause a false positive, so he asked to be re-tested. Instead, WTU commanders told him they were kicking him out of the Army for what they called a pattern of misconduct.

Not only did the Army want to discharge him without benefits like unemployment or access to GI Bill money, said Jensen, they also wanted to give him a discharge that was other than “honorable.” That would likely keep him from getting any benefits for the rest of his life.

“They looked at me and told me that I didn’t deserve to wear the uniform now, nor did I ever deserve to wear it,” Jensen said. “And that I was a disgrace and I should be ashamed of myself for letting my family down and my wife, and everyone else.”

There are many stories just like Jensen’s, of soldiers being ‘Chaptered Out.’  Soldiers may be discharged for reasons ranging anywhere from tardiness to substance abuse and more serious crimes.  Many soldiers being chaptered out have been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, both of which can influence behavior and judgment.

“If they kick out these soldiers in a way that they get anything other than honorable discharge, then they don’t automatically qualify for the VA [federal benefits for veterans],”  said Dave Philipps, a reporter from the Colorado Springs Gazette. “They get their education benefits taken away. They can’t even apply for unemployment. And so, they’re really left with nothing.”

Philipps said that the number of soldiers getting kicked out for misconduct has gone up every year since the war in Iraq began.  Since 2006, 76,000 soldiers have been chaptered out, Philipps calculates.  Veterans who fought for our country, received physical and mental injuries from that service, are being denied benefits because of effects from their sicknesses.  But it gets worse.

A troubling and sickening pattern is showing up with discharging soldiers.  Medically discharging a wounded soldier can take up to 14 months, and a commander cannot get a replacement soldier fit and ready for combat until the process is complete.  These soldiers might be considered a burden on these units, taking up a valuable position. For Philipps, the math is simple.

“These commanders are stuck in this position where if they try to get them out medically, they are still stuck with them, maybe for a long time,” he said. “If they decide to kick them out for misconduct instead, they could be out in weeks.”

Commanders at Fort Carson gave a statement saying that “The Army does not and will never discharge soldiers to avoid providing medical care and benefits,” but an insider from the US Army Medical Command confirmed that some wounded soldiers are being targeted for misconduct discharges in order to get them out of service more quickly.

“The soldier, they may be a combat veteran. They’re not as sharp as they used to be. They want to get rid of them. The easiest way is chapter,” the insider, who wants his identity protected, said.

The problem at hand is a dysfunctional medical discharge policy that gives commanding officers the incentive to chapter out injured soldiers.  It’s a real problem, that’s affecting some of our nation’s greatest heroes.

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