Left Behind No break for the wounded
A roadside bomb hit Sgt. Jerrald Jensen's Humvee in Iraq, punching through heavy armor and shooting a chunk of hot metal into his head at several times the speed of sound, shattering his face and putting him in a coma. "I wasn't supposed to live," the veteran lisped with half a tongue through numb lips. "No one knows why I did. It's shocking." Even more shocking is what Jensen did next. After 16 surgeries, the sergeant volunteered to go back to combat in one of the most savage corners of Afghanistan, where he was injured again. Perhaps most shocking, though, is what happened when he got home.
Above: Sgt. Jerrald Jensen guards the Kunar River Valley at outpost Bari Alai in 2009. He deployed to Afghanistan 21 months after a bomb blast in Iraq in 2007 shattered the lower half of his face and Army doctors rebuilt his jaw.
Courtesy Jerrald Jensen
Jensen returned to recover in a battalion at Fort Carson designed to care for wounded soldiers called the Warrior Transition Unit. In the WTU, the soldier with a heroic record said he encountered a hostile environment where commanders, some of whom had never deployed, harassed and punished the wounded for the slightest misstep while making them wait many weeks for critical medical care and sometimes canceling care altogether.
In 2011, a year after joining the WTU, just days after coming out of a surgery, Jensen tested positive for the drug amphetamine. The then-41-year-old asked to be retested, suggesting his many Army prescriptions might be to blame. His commander refused and instead gave Jensen the maximum punishment, cutting his rank to private, docking his pay and canceling surgery to fix his face so he could spend weeks mopping floors, picking weeds and scrubbing toilets.
Then, Jensen said, WTU leaders said he should be discharged for misconduct — the equivalent of getting fired — with an other-than-honorable rating that could bar him from medical benefits for life.
Jerrald Jensen drives to Walmart to get chicken and rice for dinner. Because of his injury he can eat only soft foods.
Michael Ciaglo / The Gazette
"To call guys who sacrificed so much dishonorable and kick them out with nothing?" said Jensen, who is now out of the Army, living in a small apartment with blankets covering the windows because his injuries make him sensitive to light. "Christ sake, man, it is a disgrace."
With troops going back and forth between duty stateside and in war zones during multiple deployments, disciplinary regulations designed for more conventional wars of the past increasingly are snaring troops. A Gazette investigation shows that after a decade of war, the Army is discharging more soldiers for misconduct every year. The number kicked out Army-wide annually has increased 60 percent since 2006.
Sunday, The Gazette detailed how some of the discharged have invisible wounds of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder but are kicked out anyway. The factors driving the surge in discharges include a lack of objective tests for those invisible injuries; the need to shrink the force by at least 80,000 by 2017; and Army systems that make combat units wait months or years for replacements for the wounded, turning injured soldiers into a burden and giving low-level leaders incentive to get rid of them.
"At a policy level the Army is saying it takes care of these guys but at a command level it is not happening," said Lenore Warger, a counselor who has worked with discharged soldiers for 12 years at the veterans rights organization The Quaker House near Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "Oftentimes guys with PTSD or TBI are shunned. Instead of being cared for they are marginalized."
More than 13,000 soldiers were discharged for misconduct from the Army in 2012, records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show. Army leaders contend that caring for soldiers is a top priority and no one is unduly punished. But the Army does not track how many of the discharged were also injured.
A struggle for justice
Jerrald Jensen holds a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009. He deployed to Afghanistan after being Injured in Iraq.
Courtesy Jerrald Jensen
Jensen's saga shows that in the recent surge of misconduct discharges, wounded soldiers are targeted even when injuries are obvious, conduct is heroic, alleged misconduct is relatively minor, and the unit punishing them is designed to help troops heal.
"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody," Jensen said.
The Army refused multiple requests to comment on Jensen's case.
Army regulations allow soldiers to be discharged for any number of infractions, from drug use to disrespect to showing up late too often. Ultimately, the commanding general of each post decides who is punished and who is spared.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Army considers soldiers' entire records, as well as their physical and mental conditions, in a discharge. "In short, each case is considered individually and judged on its merits," he said in an email.
At Fort Carson, discharge data obtained by The Gazette shows few of the wounded are spared. Of the 41 Fort Carson soldiers designated as wounded (those in the medical discharge process) who were targeted for a misconduct discharge in 2012, 80 percent were cut loose.
In the WTU, where soldiers by definition have complex medical issues, the rate of discharge was just as high. Of the five soldiers up for punishment, all but one were kicked out.
In 2011, it was even more harsh. Of four WTU soldiers targeted for misconduct, all were kicked out.
The Fort Carson figures do not account for the unknown number of soldiers with PTSD or TBI who are not in the medical discharge process or the WTU. The Army said it does not track the number of wounded soldiers kicked out for misconduct.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson, who commanded Fort Carson from November 2011 until mid-March and is slated to become commander of Fort Bragg this summer, said discipline must be strictly enforced, even when soldiers are hurt.
Wounded soldiers not being cared for
Michael Ciaglo / The Gazette
"You are still a soldier until you take the uniform off," he said. "So you cut your hair, you don't smoke pot, you take care of yourself, you don't tell people to F off, you don't get DUIs, you don't go smoke spice."
Jensen agreed but said when some soldiers struggle from injuries sustained while serving, the country should not abandon them.
"We are not asking for much. The Army owes us what we owe the Army. Fulfill the contract. Simple as that," he said. "We went over there. We served honorably. We were hurt in the line of duty. We should be taken care of."
Honor and service
Jensen was raised in part by his grandfather, Walter Hinkle. Walt, as Jensen called him, was a Marine captured by the Japanese in World War II who survived the Bataan Death March and three years in a prison camp then stayed in the Marines another 25 years, through the Korean War and part of the Vietnam War.
"He taught me everything I know about honor and service. Everything. I wanted to be just like him," Jensen said.
Jerrald Jensen gets "Cold Blood" tattooed on his neck in tribute to the cavalry company he served with on a mountaintop in Afghanistan. Jensen has a tattoo of a Purple Heart on the other side of his neck.
Summit Tattoo artist Martin Bee shaves Jerrald Jensen's neck in preparation for a tattoo.
Michael Ciaglo / The Gazette
When the twin towers came down in 2001, Jensen, a wiry, 5-foot-6 31-year-old working in construction, called his mother and told her he had spoken to his grandfather. Walt had said, "Put your life in order; it is time to serve your country."
"I said, 'Honey, Walt has been dead for some time,' " recalled his mother, Annie Rees. "He said, 'I know, but I spoke to him, and he said it was time to go.' "
Jensen joined the Army in 2004. He was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Carson in late 2005 and soon deployed to the most dangerous part of Iraq during one of the most dangerous times of the war.
It was Baghdad, late 2006. At the start of the war, the Pentagon assured the public that troops would be greeted as liberators. By the time Jensen arrived, Muslim factions were battling for control using market bombings and murder squads, and troop deaths were on their way to an all-time high.
Just as the outlook had changed since the invasion, so had the trucks. At the start of the war, soldiers drove lightweight, doorless Humvees. Insurgents kept hitting them with roadside bombs, so the Army covered the trucks in armor. Insurgents responded with bigger bombs, so the Army added more armor.
By the time Jensen was driving the streets of Baghdad, his Humvee was encased in steel and blast-proof glass. The enemy responded with a vicious little device called an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP.
An EFP is a piece of steel pipe, no bigger than a paint can, packed with explosives and capped with a bowl-shaped copper disk. When the explosives fire, the copper instantly warps into a molten dart flying at five times the speed of sound. It can slice through armor like a knife through butter.
No place safe
In the first few months Jensen was in Iraq, EFP attacks more than doubled.
Insurgents set the explosives where traffic had to slow, aiming the copper spears at the front windows where senior leaders often rode.
Soldiers tried to look out for them, but there was little they could do.
"We lost a lot of guys that way," Jensen said. "There was no neighborhood that was really safe."
Sgt. Jerrald Jensen sits in the Humvee in Iraq in 2007 where a few weeks later he was nearly killed.
Courtesy Jerrald Jensen
Jensen was the driver for the No. 2 commander in his battalion, a hard-working major named Keith Brace. Their mission was to drive the most dangerous neighborhoods every day, trying to forge alliances with local leaders.
Over the months, the major and Jensen grew close. "Jensen was a great guy," said Brace, now retired. "Very talkative, active, high energy. ... I always got the feeling he was taking good care of me."
In August 2007, the Army received intelligence that insurgents were targeting the top commanders in his battalion, Jensen said. He figured the insurgents probably knew the major always rode in the front passenger seat, and one well-aimed EFP would cut him in half.
On their next rest day, Jensen had Army welders move the major's seat back 6 inches. Jensen figured that if an EFP hit, the blast might still rip off the major's legs, but at least he might live.
Three days later, on Aug. 22, 2007, it happened. They were rolling in a convoy of six Humvees through a rough neighborhood on the edge of Sadr City. Jensen drove while a gunner on top of the Humvee scanned the rooftops and the major talked on the radio in his pushed-back seat.
The convoy slowed to go through a gate. On one side, sun-bleached buildings lined the road. On the other, a dusty soccer field rippled in the heat.
"It was a good day," Brace said. "Everything was normal. Kids were playing soccer. You don't see people out if a bomb is about to go off."
Jensen watched the trucks in front of him creep through the gate, unaware that three EFPs were cached on a concrete barrier on the roadside.