SHELTON, Wash. — A young Army staff sergeant’s face showed visible anguish as he sat inside his Shelton trailer to record a cell phone video to send to his wife.
“I lost a lot,” Kord Ball said, as tears flowed down his cheeks.“…and I don’t know how. I don’t know how. There’s no way how to change it.”
That late August 2018 morning was yet another low point for the 27-year-old veteran, who had tried to kill himself four times before. He suffers from mental illnesses, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder — brought on by combat-related trauma.
But despite his pleas, help wasn’t around the corner.
Army leaders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) were just weeks away from officially kicking the soldier out of the military under other-than-honorable conditions for failing a drug test for marijuana — even though Ball’s military doctors warned his commanders that his medical conditions caused him to break the rules. That discharge status cost him the right to access long-term health care benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"They treated him as a bad soldier instead of a sick soldier," said Heather Straub, a Tacoma-based attorney who represented Ball in his unsuccessful attempt to fight the Army's decision.
Between January 2009 and October 2015, the Army separated more than 22,000 soldiers for misconduct after they came back from Iraq or Afghanistan and were diagnosed with a mental health condition or a traumatic brain injury, according to Department of Defense data obtained in 2016. As a result, many of the dismissed soldiers did not receive health care benefits that soldiers are eligible to receive with an honorable discharge.
It’s not immediately possible to quantify the number of soldiers, like Ball, who are currently affected by this problem. The Army is not continuing to track the information it previously provided, according to a 2018 Freedom of Information Act response.
But what happened to the 27-year-old is a pattern at Ft. Lewis, according to two Madigan Army Medical Center employees who have direct contact with hundreds of JBLM soldiers who have mental health diagnoses.
KING 5 agreed not to identify the employees. One is a program administrator and the other is a Madigan psychologist. They fear retaliation because they do not have permission from the Army to talk to the media.
“The soldiers need help. The American people do not know what’s going on. If I was not around these soldiers, I wouldn’t know. Sometimes I sit and I’m just amazed at how bad these soldiers are treated,” the Madigan program administrator said. “It’s like the rats jumping out of the water. ‘Hurry up and get them out. They’re too much trouble.’"
The employees said it’s common for Army commanders to view soldiers with service-related behavioral health conditions as defiant troublemakers who need to go — because the "acting out” symptoms of their medical conditions can seem like personality flaws to military leaders who don’t understand their illnesses.
“I think a lot of commanders feel they have to set an example — that if they don’t punish a soldier, then it’s not sending the correct message to other soldiers,” the program administrator said. "They only see the misconduct and they really firmly believe that the soldier uses the behavioral health condition as a pawn. I've had commanders say that."
There are safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. Army soldiers who are involuntarily separated from active duty must first receive a separation health assessment to determine whether their medical conditions played a role in the alleged misconduct. But the Army’s longstanding medical review process and policies to protect those sick soldiers are often not effective, the Madigan employees said, because commanders have the power to overrule the medical experts — and they frequently do.
“There is widespread frustration (within Madigan) right now because the perception is our recommendations seem to be ignored,” the psychologist said. "Some soldiers with proven medical dysfunctions are being kicked to the curb and dehumanized….(They’re) the victims of an injustice by a system that’s really way bigger than they are.”
A Madigan program director— not interviewed for this story — also recognized the pattern while testifying in support of Ball at his military separation hearing.
“I feel very strongly about this situation for [Staff Sergeant] Ball and soldiers in general,” Michelle Hooker, clinic director of the Army Substance Abuse Disorder Clinical Care program at Madigan, told members of Ball’s separation board. "This seems to be common in JBLM, depending on the unit and commander.”
Col. Lee Peters, an Army spokesman at JBLM, declined an interview request and did not answer specific written questions about the Madigan employees’ claims or the broader issue. He also did not respond to questions about how Ft. Lewis leaders hold commanders accountable for making the right decisions in separation cases where service-related mental illnesses play a role.
In a statement, Peters said that thorough medical reviews are a routine part of the separation process. He said commanders review each case individually in detail using a "holistic" approach that considers all available information about a soldier, including a soldier's medical history, input from subordinate commanders, medical professionals and subject-matter experts.
"All the while, the commander requires the Soldier to maintain discipline, standards and conduct expected a soldier," he wrote. "We comply with all Army policies relating to Soldier separations, and are confident this process is fair, objective and deliberate to ensure our Soldier's health and well-being are always considered."