By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Instead, Nicholas's deployment was called off, and he's expecting to be medically retired. For him, that moment can't come too soon. "I hate this job," he says. "I needed some help, some support. They didn't want to give it to me. They didn't care."
Pogany was angry like Nicholas once, especially during the months leading up to his medical retirement. Angry at the Army for being his whole world and then turning on him and making him a national pariah. Angry that his injury didn't make any sense — whoever heard of a soldier laid low by a stupid pill? Angry that, despite all he'd been through, he still ended up better off than some of his teammates, like Howell or his team sergeant, Kelly Hornbeck, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
"Sometimes I feel like I was the luckiest guy in this whole war," he says. "I went over for what, fifteen days, and came home with two arms, two legs." And he was angry that he was entering civilian life with no job and no idea what he wanted to do with his life. "I was in the toilet," he says now.
He took time off, traveled to Europe. He met Claude AnShin Thomas, a Vietnam veteran turned Buddhist monk who told him, "Once a soldier, always a soldier. It's what we do with the experience that makes a difference in our lives." And then, finally, he got it. "I had to come to grips with the fact that I was shattered. That I was broken. And that being broken wasn't such a bad thing," he says. "And, in a nutshell, I had a choice. I could either get busy living, or I could get busy dying."
He soon found something to live for, something perfectly suited to his background. While he was still in the Army, soldiers had started coming up to him, asking for help. They knew no one else to turn to other than the guy who'd taken on the system and won. A month after leaving the Army, Pogany started working with Robinson at the NGWRC, helping him build on veterans-advocacy tools first developed by Vietnam veterans, shifting the programs to focus on a new generation of soldiers.
"I felt that now that Andrew had successfully survived his battle, he could become a powerful advocate. Intellectually, he was very well put together. He had the intelligence-gathering skills and paperwork skills and organizational skills to be very effective," says Robinson. "The people who are most passionate about these issues are the ones who've dealt personally with them."
The two men, first at the NGWRC, then at Veterans for America, discovered that they had their work cut out for them. While soldiers were no longer returning with apparent Lariam side effects — the drug is still commonly prescribed to people traveling to regions where malaria is resistant to some other anti-malarials, but the Army has stopped using it — they were coming home with other problems, like PTSD and TBIs.
More than 1.6 million soldiers have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they've been finding that these battlefields are very different than those of their predecessors. In Vietnam, one soldier was killed for every two and a half wounded. Now the survival rate is one killed for every sixteen wounded. The Veterans Administration is expecting to treat an estimated 333,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in 2009 alone, and many of these injuries will be mental, brought on by constant, omnipresent danger dotted with brain-rattling roadside bombs.
"Combat in Iraq is 360-365," says Paul Sullivan, executive director of the non-profit Veterans for Common Sense. "That means our service members are completely surrounded, all day, every day, for a year."
The undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration recently noted that of the 300,000 veterans of the wars treated at VA hospitals, more than half were diagnosed with a mental health condition, 68,000 of which were PTSD. In addition, 30 percent of veterans treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. These are injuries that aren't as gruesomely simple to treat as a lost arm or leg — and much easier for the Army to overlook or ignore.
Pogany put his Army interrogator training to good use tracking down and helping soldiers with these injuries. He began digging into Army regulations — military justice volumes, medical manuals — and hanging around Fort Carson, finding those who needed help as well as those who could help them.
He worked within the system, making sure to distance himself from anti-war groups. "It's not an issue about the war, and it never has been for me," he says. "When that question is brought into the picture, it becomes very political. And when it becomes very political, you tend to not open as many doors."
While Robinson helped document abuses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., leading to front-page headlines and several prominent military leaders stepping down, Pogany trained his sights on his former Army post.
"Andrew has proven to be a tireless and dedicated advocate for troops suffering from invisible injuries such as PTSD," says Republican senator Kit Bond of Missouri, whose office has used Pogany as a resource. "He knows the challenges these warfighters face in getting the care they need because he has lived the experience."