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Senators Want Moratorium On Dismissing Soldiers During Investigation

Larry Morrison, who returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being kicked out of the Army for misconduct, leaving him without military benefits.
Michael de Yoanna
Colorado Public Radio
Larry Morrison, who returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being kicked out of the Army for misconduct, leaving him without military benefits.

Four U.S. senators are calling on the Army to stop kicking out soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and have been diagnosed with mental health problems or traumatic brain injuries — effective immediately.

The senators say they're motivated by an investigation by NPR and Colorado Public Radio that revealed the Army has continued to discharge troubled troops for misconduct, even though the Army's then-Acting Secretary Eric Fanning promised late last year to investigate whether the practice is unfair.

We found that since 2009, the Army has kicked out more than 22,000 mentally wounded combat troops on the grounds of misconduct, and taken away their benefits, instead of helping them. As a result of that report, 12 Senate Democrats sent a letter demanding an investigation to Fanning and the general who, working together, run the Army.

Developments since then raise questions about the Army's investigation. For instance, Fanning appointed Debra Wada, the Army's assistant secretary in charge of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, to lead the review.

Two weeks after she was named, Wada signed a document ordering commanders to dismiss Larry Morrison, a highly decorated combat soldier who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was one of the soldiers profiled in the original report by NPR and CPR.

"It's puzzling and troubling," says David Sonenshine, a former military prosecutor who now works with the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

He says that because "the person who's in charge of the investigation is also the same person who ultimately reviews some of these administrative separations, [it] creates the picture that there's just something unfair or unobjective about the process."

Morrison's Army records suggest he's the kind of soldier whom senators say the Army should help, not punish. He's a 20-year veteran. He fought four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the Army awarded him a Bronze Star.

After Morrison came home to Fort Carson, in Colorado, he was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. He pleaded guilty to drunken and reckless driving. Commanders at Fort Carson also alleged he belonged to a "criminal" motorcycle gang — something Morrison denies. They asked top Army officials for clearance to kick him out for misconduct.

Now that Wada has signed the order, Morrison won't be able to receive a combat soldier's usual benefits, including free health care.

If something is concerning enough to investigate, common sense says that you wait until the results of that investigation, before you take further action.

"I've given them all of my youthful years; I'm 42 years old," Morrison says. "And now they want to put me out with no benefits. They want to give me an 'other than honorable' discharge, so I can't get a job, I can't go to school, and [they're going to] take my 20-year retirement away. So they want to put me on the streets with nothing."

Four senators tell NPR and CPR they want the Army to stop dismissing soldiers diagnosed with mental health problems until the Army finishes its investigation.

"The Army needs to halt the discharge process," says Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "What it does, it stops any kind of wrongdoing from going forward."

"It seems to me to be common sense that the Army would impose a moratorium on taking disciplinary actions against soldiers while they undergo this review," says Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

"If something is concerning enough to investigate, common sense says that you wait until the results of that investigation before you take further action," says Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "And I think that's just garden variety fairness."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also tells NPR and CPR that she wants the Army to impose a temporary moratorium on discharging combat troops for misconduct if they've been diagnosed with mental health problems or brain injuries.

Army officials declined to say whether they'll comply with the senators' requests for a moratorium. They also declined our requests for an interview.

"The review is ongoing, so it would be premature for us to comment on any aspect of it at this time," Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokesperson, tells NPR in a written statement.

Meanwhile, Morrison just got his final orders. The Army will kick him out Thursday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.
I joined KUNC in 2016 to oversee news operations just as the station changed its format to round-the-clock news and information. I got my start as a journalist at the turn of the century, working as a newspaper. I took the advice of my mentors and didn't get too comfortable at any one place, working in several newsrooms along Colorado's Front Range, learning a little more about the state each place I went. I spread my wings as a freelancer after that. I worked for many publications, including Salon, 5280 magazine in Denver and my own, now-defunct bloggy news site that, among other things, ran cartoons rejected by the New Yorker. I also got my first taste of broadcast journalism, working for "48 Hours Mystery," "60 Minutes" and, eventually, a day job as a producer at the investigative desk at 7News in Denver. My first story in public radio was a collaboration with KUNC in a subject I've long explored -- the treatment of injured troops returning home from war. It won a national Edward R. Murrow award, one of the many awards over my career I've been lucky enough to win. In 2017, I won a Columbia-duPont award for my investigation into the same subject with NPR Investigative Correspondent Danny Zwerdling.