On a recent July morning, Chuck Luther got a call from a soldier serving in northern Iraq. The staff sergeant on the line was nine months into his combat tour and saying that “things are bad,” which Luther took to mean the staff sergeant was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. The staff sergeant had asked for treatment. His commanders had apparently not taken kindly to that request. They allegedly told the staff sergeant not to ask for help or he would face retribution.
Luther runs Disposable Warriors, a nonprofit group based in Killeen near Fort Hood. Luther and three volunteers advocate, cajole, call in favors and do whatever they can to ensure that the military provides needed treatment and counseling to mentally traumatized soldiers. In the past four years, Luther has worked with more than 700 soldiers. Most of them were still in the military—either in Iraq and Afghanistan or recently returned home from deployment—though he also helped some soldiers already discharged. All had experienced the trauma of war and none had received treatment. Some had sought help and been turned down by their commanders. Others were too scared even to ask.
“They’re scared to ask for help because of the stigmatization,” Luther says. “The chain of command will tell them, ‘You’ll lose your security clearance or you’re not going to the promotion board or you’re a dirt bag.’ They don’t get help. So they come to us. We’re able to get in and engage in the chains of command and enforce Army regulations. You have to treat these guys for these illnesses or injuries. You can’t retaliate or stigmatize them.”
The military endured scandal in recent years for intentionally misdiagnosing PTSD and other combat-related traumas as pre-existing personality disorders. Diagnosing soldiers with a pre-existing mental illness meant the military could discharge soldiers without providing benefits. As Luther put it, “Like, you’re a dirt bag, now you’re getting out of the military. And they just kick them out with no benefits.”
He should know. It happened to him. Luther entered the military in 1988. He was deployed in 2006 to Iraq, where he performed reconnaissance for the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment. In early 2007, a mortar attack on a guard tower slammed Luther into a concrete wall. He suffered a severe shoulder injury and head trauma that resulted in blinding headaches. As journalist Joshua Kors reported in The Nation, military doctors fraudulently diagnosed Luther with a personality disorder. This was a common practice. Kors reported that nearly 26,000 solders had been diagnosed with personality disorders since 2001. Many, like Luther, had never exhibited signs of mental illness prior to combat. He was stashed in a room at the base in Iraq while military guards blared heavy metal music around the clock. Eventually he was discharged without benefits.
Luther fought the system and—along with Kors’ ground-breaking reporting—helped expose the scandal. Both men testified before Congress, and the military has been forced to reform. The number of personality disorder diagnoses has dropped to 7,000 over the past four years.
That still leaves many warriors that need Luther’s help. He started Disposable Warriors with $50,000 of his own money and refuses to accept payment for his services.
He says the military has begun a new strategy with traumatized soldiers: let them go untreated until they can be charged with misconduct. “Instead of treating a soldier, they just continue to pressure the soldier till they do something: go AWOL, harm themselves, continue drinking and just don’t care anymore, coming in late to work, becoming insubordinate. Then they just kick them out for misconduct.”
That’s where Luther comes in. “I can’t promise that I can fix everything and have it treated as it should be. But the one thing I can promise and I will promise is that I will intervene for you. We will get you the help that you really need.” Through his activism the past four years, Luther has made a lot of friends in high places, from commanders at Fort Hood to generals in the Pentagon to members of Congress. Military regulations require that soldiers receive treatment. If a certain captain isn’t following the rules, Luther can right the situation with a few calls and e-mails.
“When those four-star generals call from Washington, that makes all the difference.”