The Good Soldier

When the Army tried to take down Andrew Pogany, it messed with the wrong coward.

But the staff sergeant knows something's different inside of him, something beyond sleep problems. It's been that way ever since a mortar exploded next to him in Iraq. He walked away without any physical wounds, any outward signs of damage — but something was wrong. "When I got back from Iraq the last time, I was irritable, and lately it's been worse. It's rough when I can't sleep, and I get home and get in an argument with my wife..." His voice trails off.

Pogany, now 36, listens quietly, his eyes trained steadily on the soldier — the only part of Pogany that doesn't seem to be in constant, agitated motion. His legs bounce absentmindedly; his hands, sheathed in his black leather jacket, pull thoughtfully on the brown goatee adorning his boyish face when they aren't flipping through the documents the staff sergeant has brought with him. On one document, he notices something.

"According to this, you have a mild traumatic brain injury," he says. Traumatic brain injuries, caused by sudden head trauma such as a mortar attack and marked by lingering psychological and physical symptoms like sleep apnea, have become a common memento of the war. In fact, Fort Carson has reported in a study that nearly 18 percent of its soldiers returning from war had suffered a traumatic brain injury. And that's not the only baggage they were coming home with: Since 2003, the base has also diagnosed 2,189 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Teresa Mischke is now taking care of her husband, Darren (pictured here after his first tour of duty).
Bryce boyer
Teresa Mischke is now taking care of her husband, Darren (pictured here after his first tour of duty).
Joel Hunt will need Andrew Pogany's help to set things straight.
Bryce boyer
Joel Hunt will need Andrew Pogany's help to set things straight.

"What are they doing for that?" he asks the staff sergeant.

"Nothing."

Pogany's heard enough. A TBI is serious enough to warrant medical retirement and benefits. "That diagnosis was not included in your [medical evaluation]. The question is why." Pogany wants to see all of the staff sergeant's medical records. They're going to appeal his medical evaluation, he says, and the soldier doesn't need to worry about legal fees. Pogany's going to get him a pro bono lawyer.

Four years after being charged with, and later acquitted of, cowardice, after riding his own tumultuous wave through the Army, Pogany is a Denver-based soldiers' advocate helping veterans who are living through much the same experiences he had.

Over the past few years, he's worked for several veterans organizations, and in January he was hired as a special investigator for the Washington, D.C.-based National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) to seek out stories like this, soldiers who are coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and finding the Army has deemed them expendable. Retired from the Army, he's a one-man civilian commando unit, working to untangle the bureaucracy behind the Defense department's medical, military justice and veterans' benefits systems — and if that doesn't do the trick, he can always call his powerful contacts in the press corps or on Capitol Hill to help him.

There's lots to keep him busy. The Army, which begins its sixth year of war in Iraq this week, has been hammered on multiple fronts for its poor treatment of injured soldiers, especially those suffering from mental and psychological injuries. Fort Carson, with 17,500 military personnel assigned to it, has become a flashpoint in the extended controversy, with soldiers there claiming they've been punished or kicked out of the Army without proper benefits because they have TBIs or mental-health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The allegations have led to front-page headlines, investigations by U.S. senators and military officials, and promised improvement by Fort Carson brass.

Pogany has been in the center of it all, working to help the soldiers, telling reporters and Congress about the problems, and pushing for changes that are now starting to happen. And he certainly has the attention of Fort Carson's new commander.

"I have talked to Andrew on several occasions," says Major General Mark Graham, who took charge of Fort Carson last September. "I think Andrew has much the same goal as we do, which is to help soldiers and their families. Andrew has raised some concerns to us, and I appreciate him doing that.

"I think we are showing that multiple deployments is tough on soldiers and their families," Graham adds. "But I think the good part of this is that we have a system in place where we talk to soldiers and tell them we are always open. We tell them it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to come forward and say they need some help. We are changing the culture. It takes time, but I think we are making some progress in that area."

Pogany agrees that Fort Carson and the Army are making progress — but there are still soldiers who need help, like the staff sergeant sitting across from him. "They made it look like I was trying to get out of going to Iraq again," he tells Pogany with a snort. "I have been to Iraq twice. I'm not scared to go." Still, he adds, bad stuff did happen over there — stuff he can't shake.

"You need to be completely re-evaluated for a traumatic brain injury," Pogany tells him. In fact, does he have time to go to Fort Carson's traumatic brain injury clinic right now? No need to worry about making an appointment; people at Fort Carson are used to Pogany's unannounced visits.

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