Injured in war, the real hurt came at home

In Cedric Coulter’s first Iraq tour, he saw combat almost every day. He still sees it almost a decade later in unexpected flashes that can leave him cowering under his blanket in bed or clutching his steering wheel after a flashback of Iraq wondering what happened.

In Cedric Coulter’s first Iraq tour, he saw combat almost every day. He still sees it almost a decade later in unexpected flashes that can leave him cowering under his blanket in bed or clutching his steering wheel after a flashback of Iraq.

The Army has regulations to keep injured soldiers like Coulter from being thrown out of the service for minor misconduct, but a Gazette investigation found the safeguards are easily sidestepped. A close look at Coulter’s story shows how soldiers injured by repeated deployments can be thrown out of the Army for minor infractions, and when they do, psychologists and other medical staff can act against regulations to help the Army get a soldier out.

Coulter was assigned to one of the most dangerous corners of Iraq. He arrived at a base in the embattled city of Najaf in 2004.

He was a replacement troop for the battered 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which had seen its deployment extended twice as the war intensified.

When he arrived he said he found troops sleeping shoulder to shoulder wearing shorts, T-shirts, and full body armor.

Cedric Coulter's battalion threatened to kick him out of the Army for "patterns of misconduct" including not wearing gloves. Coulter served three tours and suffers from PTSD.

Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

“Within about an hour I saw why. Mortars started going off everywhere. They were trying to overrun the base. This happened regularly,” he said. “We all ran up to the roof and were all just firing, firing, firing into the dark at anything you could see.”

Too wound up to sleep after the fight, Coulter watched dawn creep in from the roof and saw the locals come in at first light to collect the bodies of the attackers.

It was a fitting introduction. The base was mortared almost every night, he said. His squad was attacked more times than he can count. He saw coalition soldiers blown apart. He lived with the realization that every day could be his last.

Worse than the danger, he said, was the killing. In the confined, confusing urban landscape, it was hard to tell who was the enemy. Women and children got killed in the crossfire.

A sergeant in Coulter’s squad who did not want to be named because he was uncomfortable talking about the action, confirmed that civilians were killed. “It’s war, things happen,” he said. “You build up a shell. You don’t think about it. Legal or illegal, you put your shell on and fight for the brother next to you. It’s not until you get back to the States that the shell breaks away and it hits you like a ton of bricks.”

Some in Coulter’s platoon cracked, medically discharged after the tour for post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. A good friend committed suicide. Others turned to drugs.

Coulter went to a new assignment after the tour guarding a high-ranking general in Germany, far from reminders of combat. Even so, he struggled. Reminders of Iraq would spark hallucinatory combat flashbacks. He stopped driving in cities for fear that he would see a woman in a hijab and black out. He drank heavily at night to keep Iraq from his dreams. His wife surprised him one night while he was drinking and he tackled her and tried to choke her while calling out Iraqi slurs.

Coulter deployed twice more to Iraq. Looking back, he described both tours as “pretty quiet” compared to the first, but they included seeing a comrade decapitated by a mortar and gathering the skull fragments by hand.

After returning from his last tour, he went to see an Army psychologist, records show, but said he quickly ended therapy because the psychologist required him to write about his experiences.

“I just can’t really think about those things and still function,” he said.

Still, Coulter was an excellent soldier. Records show he earned awards for heroism and good conduct. Glowing performance reviews called him “exceptional” and “dedicated,” and called for him to be promoted.

He did not have a single bad mark on his record until he was transferred to the 3rd Squadron of the 61st Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson and was assigned to a sought-after job in the headquarters company. Some in the unit thought he had not earned the position, he said, and two superiors began treating him badly, referring to him not by his name, but only by an epithet referring to his mother.

Coulter complained to the Army’s Equal Opportunity Office, which called a meeting and reminded members of the unit to be more courteous.

The next day Coulter was moved from his job to a combat platoon. There, records show, leaders began writing him up repeatedly for small infractions. When he showed up to morning exercise without black gloves he was written up for being out of uniform. When he called his platoon sergeant “Smoke” — a term of respect in the Army — the sergeant wrote him up for being disrespectful, saying the term was used only for artillery sergeants.

The unit used the growing list of infractions to charge Coulter with “a pattern of misconduct” and recommended he be kicked out of the Army, documents show.

Coulter said medical providers at Fort Carson then began to change his records to clear him for a misconduct discharge.

Coulter had been seeing an Army traumatic brain injury specialist named Dr. Ivan Covas-Maldonado. The unit stopped his appointments, he said.

Coulter had also been seeing a civilian psychologist for treatment of PTSD. The Army canceled his sessions and sent him instead to Army psychologist Kelly Moss. The civilian psychologist had diagnosed him with PTSD. After seeing him once, Moss said he had “adjustment disorder,” and did not qualify for further evaluation for medical discharge, according to Coulter’s medical records. He was cleared to be discharged for misconduct.

His Army defense lawyer, in a letter to Fort Carson’s commander, called the evaluation “potentially erroneous or coerced” and asked for the general to stop the discharge. She got no response.

At the same time, doctors changed Coulter’s physical diagnosis. He had damaged feet from his deployments and walked with a limp. Before he was slated to be kicked out, the battalion physician’s assistant noted his physical injuries and restricted his activities. After he was targeted for separation, the same physician’s assistant noted in records that he was no longer injured and could resume normal activities.

Soldiers who have been in the Army more than six years have the right to request an impartial administrative separation board to rule on their discharge. Coulter was slated for surgery to fix one of his feet. His commander told him if he requested a separation board hearing, the unit would cancel the surgery, according to Army legal documents.

In late May, Coulter agreed to waive his right to the board so he could get his foot fixed. An Army doctor recommended 58 days of convalescent leave to heal. Maj. Adam Lowmaster, the battalion commander, called Coulter into his office and said he would get no recovery leave.

“What would you say to that?” he asked Coulter, according to an audio recording Coulter made that was later provided to Fort Carson officials.

“I’d say it would be inhumane, sir,” Coulter said quietly.

The major said he might give Coulter five days’ recovery leave if Coulter promised not to fight his discharge, adding, “I want to see you get out of the Army, then everyone will be happy.”

A short time later Coulter filed a complaint with the Army’s Inspector General — an independent investigative branch of the Army. He also told his congressman and senator how he was being treated. With investigations pending, he was moved in June to another brigade.

He was scheduled to be kicked out July 11. That day he got a text message from his new brigade saying his “separation was revoked.”

“No explanation, no going to someone’s office to talk, no accounting for everything the old unit did. Just, you are still in the Army,” he said. “I feel abused. They do all this stuff. They lie. And then they pretend none of this ever happened.”

He left the Army when his enlistment was up in October, saying even if he could qualify for a medical discharge, he didn’t want to stay in what he saw as a hostile environment.