Locked Away Army struggles with wounded soldiers

Sgt. Paul Sasse arrived at Fort Carson in February in a uniform glistening with decorations from three combat tours: five medals for heroism, four for excellence, three for good conduct and one for nearly getting killed in Iraq. The 32-year-old Special Forces soldier also wore shackles. He was facing court-martial for assaulting his wife and two military police officers. Sasse had been sitting in solitary confinement at the El Paso County jail for months without military charge and had been brought to the Colorado Springs Army post to be arraigned. "I just need someone to help me," he said, reaching with bound hands to show a Gazette reporter his medical files.

Above: Sgt. Paul Sasse smokes a cigarette while in handcuffs Feb. 12 outside a courtroom at Fort Carson as he waits to be arraigned on assault charges. Sasse, who did three combat tours, went back to the El Paso County jail, still without charge, after the hearing was canceled.

Michael Ciaglo / The Gazette

Sasse was hit by a roadside bomb in 2007 in Iraq and diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. He kept soldiering through another tour even though he struggled with shattered memory and concentration, depression, nightmares and rage.

In 2012, the Army diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors gave him a mix of contraindicated drugs that made him manic. A few weeks later, he slammed his wife's head against their Jeep until she was covered in blood then turned on the military police who tried to stop him. He had been scheduled to go into a special unit for wounded soldiers. Instead, the Army put him in jail.

In the El Paso County jail, Sasse picked up three more assault charges for assaulting guards. He ended up in solitary. He sat there for almost nine months, growing a long, bushy beard and developing, an Army doctor wrote in January, "severe psychiatric disease."

"Given his condition, his confinement is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment," Fort Carson's top defense attorney said in a letter to Fort Carson's commander in September, asking the general to send Sasse to a psychiatric hospital.

Still, the Army left him in solitary.

His family pleaded to the commander and their hometown senator to intervene to no avail.

Special Forces Sgt. Paul Sasse gets patted down before going back to solitary confinement Jan. 23 at the El Paso County jail. The wounded Army veteran had been in jail without military charge since July in connection with beating his wife and assaulting military police.

Michael Ciaglo / The Gazette

If convicted and thrown out of the Army, Sasse had a plan: go to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., lay his thick stack of medical records on the steps then set himself on fire.

"It's the only way I can get anyone to listen," he said as deputies took him away.

Wounds cause misconduct

At the end of the longest period of war in American history, no one knows how many troops like Sasse are suffering from invisible injuries through one deployment after another, ready to break. Of the 2.5 million troops who have deployed for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001, more than 400,000 have deployed three times or more. Each time, they are more likely to develop TBI, PTSD and other psychological problems, Department of Defense studies show.

Repeated studies also show these invisible injuries dramatically increase the likelihood that troops will act out and be kicked out with no benefits. Often, the wounds take years to develop, which means the country will be dealing with the wounded long after the wars are done.

This week, a Gazette investigation has shown that the number of soldiers discharged Army-wide for misconduct has increased every year since 2006 and is up more than 60 percent in that time, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The 76,000 soldiers kicked out since 2006 include an unknown number who have PTSD or TBI. Even soldiers with obvious physical wounds are not protected from quick discharge for breaking the rules. Neither are soldiers like Sasse, who have considerable combat exposure and long records of meritorious service.

"It's despicable," said retired Special Forces Staff Sgt. Jason Inman, who shared a Humvee in Iraq with Sasse. "Guys get in trouble and the Army makes it look like the soldier's fault and kicks them out when it's the Army that made them this way."

When injured soldiers commit crimes, the Army rarely offers mercy, records show. PTSD is not an effective defense, Army defense attorneys say, and the majority of wounded soldiers who commit crimes are stripped of medical care and other benefits for life and thrown out of the Army.

In February, Sasse's friends and family feared he would go off the deep end if put out with no health care.

Sgt. Paul Sasse

Three-tour veteran says Army gave up on him after PTSD got bad.

Michael Ciaglo / The Gazette

"Locking Paul up just made him worse," his mother, Sarah Ingram, said. "He is wounded. He needs help. And the Army wants to throw him out with no care. I'm almost sure he would kill himself. He might hurt others, too."

What Sasse really needed, she said, is treatment in a secure medical facility. The Army has its own locked psychiatric hospitals and contracts with others, but it refused to transfer Sasse. Commanders at Fort Carson maintained that he was too dangerous. He needed to be prosecuted.

At the same time, the Army was offering him a deal: agree to quit the Army and get out of jail with no supervision.

The process is known as a Chapter 10 discharge — resignation in lieu of prosecution. It is almost always accompanied by an other-than-honorable discharge that bars soldiers from medical benefits.

"He is too dangerous, but then they turn around and offer to put him out on the street?" said Georg-Andreas Pogány, a veterans advocate who has been trying to help Sasse for months. "It's more than insane."

Sasse is not the only soldier at Fort Carson jailed then encouraged to resign with no benefits to avoid prosecution. More than 440 soldiers have resigned in lieu of court-martial through Chapter 10 at Fort Carson since 2006, Army records show. Many of them committed crimes and were not injured, but internal Army emails show that some were specifically targeted because Chapter 10 circumvents safeguards for wounded soldiers.

An additional 13,000 resigned under Chapter 10 Army-wide in that time. The Army didn't respond to requests for information showing how many, like Sasse, struggled with wounds from combat. A spokesman said the Army does not track that data.

"We may not get it right 100 percent of the time but we work hard to identify at-risk troops in time for intervention," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Army has made strides to improve detection and care for invisible combat injuries but has not changed decades-old regulations directing what to do when those soldiers break the rules, critics say.

"I don't think the Army knows how to treat this stuff yet," Sasse's former commander, Lt. Col. Matthew Nilson, told an Army court in March. "All these cases we see, they are injuries. When you hurt your leg, you don't get in trouble for that. We don't treat these injuries. It's a tragedy."