By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
Pogany, the "Puppet Master," as his girlfriend jokingly calls him, was soon traveling to other states, poking around their military installations. In upstate New York, he discovered soldiers at Fort Drum were waiting six to eight weeks to get a mental health appointment. In California, Pogany and Robinson reported to the press that at Camp Pendleton, Marines with post-traumatic stress disorder were being given little treatment or respect. And at Alaska's Fort Richardson, Pogany found only three social workers, two substance-abuse counselors and zero psychiatrists for almost 4,000 soldiers.
"Everywhere, I found the same problems: People left and right falling through the cracks," he says. "There was this huge disconnect between what happens in the trenches and what the Pentagon and Army put out."
Until he was hired full time by Veterans for America, Pogany worked for little or no pay, cramming his investigations into nights and weekends when he wasn't working a security job at Buckley Air Force Base. His new position with the NVLSP program is similar to his past work, with one major advantage: He can connect his cases with one of the NVLSP's network of 1,000-plus pro bono lawyers, many from major law firms. The Army has long had its phalanx of legal mavens; now Pogany has one, too.
Not everyone appreciates his crusade. "Chain of command doesn't like that I am talking to you," Nicholas says to Pogany as they wrap up their meeting. "They said you are out to bash the Army." Pogany gets this a lot. For a while, there were posters plastered around Fort Carson with his face on them, warning people to call military police if they spotted him. In 2005, Colorado Springs mayor Lionel Rivera withdrew his promised support of Operation Just One, a program Pogany created to connect soldiers with off-base therapists, reportedly because he was skeptical of Pogany's motivations.
"We aren't the bad guys. This is not about ending someone's career," says Pogany. "While they are calling me names, I am going to be presenting facts. We are going to keep moving the pieces across the chessboard, and one day it's going to be checkmate."
It's a beautiful day," Teresa Mischke tells Pogany as he pulls into her driveway, greeting him like an old war buddy. They've been through a lot together.
Her husband Darren's story is so long, so convoluted, it's sometimes hard for her to know where to begin. There was his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, before he met Teresa, when his soft-skin Humvee was rammed by an Iraqi truck. There was no blood, no obvious damage, so he went right back to work. Sure, when he got home and met Teresa, there were some headaches, but nothing to be concerned about. Then, during his second deployment in 2005, a mortar hit his vehicle, blowing a hole in the turret right by his head. At the time, Darren considered himself lucky to be alive. But back in Colorado Springs in December 2006, right around the time the two got married, he stopped acting like himself. He'd get real quiet, lash out at unexpected moments and forget the most basic things. Training simulators became impossibly mystifying, his hands and mind rebelling against him, and bright flashes plagued his vision.
Then there was the night he brought his battle demons home and shoved Teresa. She called 911 — not to have him locked up, but to get help. Still, he was arrested and pleaded guilty in exchange for counseling. When his superiors heard that he was on probation and could no longer carry a weapon, they had grounds for an administrative discharge.
But Darren was getting worse. He started having seizure-like attacks, and for a while, doctors had him on twenty different medications. The military thought he was making it all up, says Teresa, to avoid going back to Iraq.
Teresa's tale didn't surprise Pogany when she first called him last spring. He'd heard lots of stories of soldiers too sick or injured to serve who'd found themselves removed from the Army without what they believed was proper treatment and support. Like Darren, some were discharged because of legal or discipline problems and were never fully medically evaluated for underlying mental-health problems. Others who did undergo a Medical Evaluation Board process claimed the assessments ignored serious injuries like PTSD and TBIs and instead focused on minor ailments or diagnosed them with general pre-existing conditions like "personality disorders" that made them unfit for duty but not eligible for pension, health and life insurance.
Army spokeswoman McNutt counters these claims, saying Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson "has an outstanding Medical Evaluation Board section which takes pride in dispositioning soldiers in a comprehensive and timely manner. All soldiers undergoing the Medical Evaluation Board process receive a thorough examination to ensure that all medical and behavioral health issues are documented. During the process, if additional medical issues are identified, they may be added to the record. In addition, soldiers are counseled and afforded multiple opportunities to appeal decisions made during the Medical Evaluation Board, the physical evaluation board and the physical disability rating process. Anytime we become aware of something that may have been missed or inadvertently overlooked, we ensure the error is corrected."