By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
Do you like green eggs and ham?
I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham!
It was September 28, 2003, Andrew Pogany's second day in Iraq, and he was steering a Land Rover through the night toward Samarra with another Special Forces soldier on board and an M4 rifle in his lap. This stretch of road, which ran through the especially nasty enclave of insurgent strongholds called the Sunni Triangle, was known for ambushes of Army convoys just like his. "This is Indian country down here," a Green Beret had told him earlier in the day. "You'll be lucky to make it out alive." Pogany should have been completely focused on the road, scanning the surroundings for signs of trouble, but he was a little distracted.
Would you like them in a house?
Would you like them with a mouse?
A 32-year-old staff sergeant stationed at Fort Carson, Pogany been assigned to fill a vacancy in a highly trained, twelve-man Special Forces A Team just two weeks before they shipped out to fight in the still-young war. And now he was learning something about one of them. Sitting next to Pogany, gripping his own rifle, medic Ken Lehman had decided it was the perfect time to recite lines from Dr. Seuss. Over and over again.
Would you eat them in a box?
Would you eat them with a fox?
It seemed to be the only way Lehman could calm himself, but it was rattling Pogany. On and on it went — in a car, in a tree, on a train, in the rain. Pogany told him to shut up, asked him, begged him, and finally managed to plug him up with a cigarette.
What an introduction to war, Pogany thought to himself later that night after the convoy had made it safely to Samarra and he tried to fall asleep in a mortar-scarred barracks, gunfire echoing through the city. He didn't have much time to reflect. Soon, explosions sounded in the distance, and truck engines roared nearby. Outside, Pogany found chaos: Soldiers were screaming and running through the compound as smoke billowed around them. A strange, metallic odor filled the air. It was the smell of blood.
There had been an ambush; several Iraqis had been captured and brought back to the compound. All that was left of one of them was in a body bag — a body bag being unzipped as Pogany turned to look. Six seconds. That's how long the bag was open, but that was all it took. It was enough to see exactly how the heavy artillery round had ripped straight through the man's torso. Enough to make out all the blood and shredded flesh. Enough to know it was difficult to call what was left a body.
Pogany turned away and went back to his room. He had the fortitude to stomach this, he told himself. He'd trained for war for years, and before that he'd been a volunteer firefighter. He'd received stellar military reviews and had been recommended for immediate promotion. Most important, he was Special Forces. But the body bag had set something off inside his head, something that didn't make sense. Everything started moving in slow motion. Then came nausea, trembling and terror. He tried to sleep again, had horrible dreams, and woke up to discover his room exploding around him. A mortar must have exploded, he thought, as he watched the ceiling cave in.
It was all in his head. Pogany realized later that he'd been hallucinating.
The next day, he told his team sergeant he needed help, that he was having a nervous breakdown. An Army psychiatrist agreed. "Solider reported signs of symptoms consistent with those of a normal combat-stress reaction," he wrote in his report. But Pogany's commanding officers wouldn't hear of it — he had to start acting like a soldier. It wasn't as simple as finding some guts and going back to work, Pogany replied; there had to be something physically wrong with him. "So, well, if you can't help me here," Pogany said, "I guess you are going to have to send me home."
They did so on October 7, and a week later, Pogany received his coming-home present: The U.S. Department of Defense charged him with cowardice. It was a military crime that hadn't been used to convict a soldier since 1968 — and it was punishable by death. With a hook like that, national media was all over the story. Jessica Lynch, America's hero, was just then front-page news. Now Pogany was America's coward.
"I am not trying to screw the Army," the staff sergeant tells Pogany. They're sitting in a chow hall at Fort Carson, the massive Army installation south of Colorado Springs, early one bright morning several weeks ago. "But I am looking out for myself," he says. "I've been here for twelve years, and to get treated like this? Hell, no."
The Army has told the 31-year-old staff sergeant that he's no longer fit for duty because he has sleep apnea, a medical condition involving breathing problems during sleep. An Army medical evaluation recently concluded that his problems aren't related to combat, so he'll be sent home with a single severance check. No retirement pay, no access to life or health insurance. Before he knows or understands it, he'll be out of the Army, and his problems will be a matter for others to deal with. The great military machine will move on, recruiting new soldiers to replace him, able-bodied men and women who aren't broken.
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.
"What are they doing for that?" he asks the staff sergeant.
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.
The staff sergeant will make time. "The Army uses you and uses you," he says, "and then throws you out."
Pogany knows exactly how that feels.
Pogany says he doesn't like talking about his past, his voice betraying no hint of an accent, no hint of growing up in Germany as Georg-Andreas, the son of an expat Hungarian insurgent who fought against the Soviets in his country's failed 1956 revolution. It took months for Pogany's girlfriend, Jen Collins, to learn about his time in the military, about how, after he emigrated to the United States as a college student and studied criminal justice at the University of South Florida, he joined the Army and was trained as an interrogator. And it's been years since he's signed off his e-mails with the Special Forces' motto, "De oppresso liber" — liberator of the oppressed — which he started doing, even though not a Green Beret himself, after he was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson in 2001. Instead, Pogany prefers to quote from the Bodhisattva or The Art of War, or tell a wry joke adorned with a few choice selections of his still-vibrant barracks vocabulary.
But driving through Fort Carson after dropping off the staff sergeant at the clinic, it's hard to escape his past. The brick office buildings, the "GI Jolt" coffee shop in the base strip mall, the fenced-off trucks and cargo containers waiting to be shipped to the desert thousands of miles away — everything comprised by "greatest home town in America," as the guards at the entrance gates are required to call it — bring back memories. Last week at the Army hospital, for example, Pogany ran into Lehman, the Green Eggs and Ham guy, whom he hadn't seen in years. Lehman said he was messed up, that he had PTSD and a TBI, and that he was in trouble with the law.
Pogany knew what Lehman felt like, lost and alone in the middle of Fort Carson. This was where Pogany returned after being charged with cowardice and ordered to complete one menial on-base task after another. It was where he struggled through the diminishing but still debilitating symptoms of his mysterious condition — blurry vision, balance problems, stomach ailments — and tried to make sense of the cowardice charge.
"I never bought into what they were saying," he says. "The question was, 'What happened?' This was not me. I didn't understand what had happened."
To try and figure it out, Pogany called a soldiers' advocate he'd heard of: Steve Robinson, a Gulf War veteran and head of the Washington, D.C., veterans' advocacy group National Gulf War Resource Center (NGWRC), who agreed to help.
"I believe the military realized it was in a different fight in Iraq. It was no longer limited tank battles; it was going to be up-close urban combat, and that was going to create fear in the soldiers, and fear is like a cancer in a war," Robinson says now. "This guy Andrew had an emotional reaction to this broken and destroyed body, and they decided they were not going to put up with it. They said, 'Let's kill this cancer right now.' It had a chilling effect throughout the entire military."
Pogany and Robinson dug in, trying to find out what, exactly, was wrong with Pogany, looking for a smoking gun — and they believed they found it in Lariam, a commonly used anti-malarial drug he'd been prescribed by the military for Iraq that was known to cause serious psychiatric side effects in some people. Military officials told Robinson they weren't prescribing Lariam in Iraq, but Pogany still had the blister pack of Lariam they'd given him; he'd taken three pills, the third on the day of his breakdown.
Soon other soldiers who'd served in Iraq were contacting Robinson — and the media — saying they, too, had been given Lariam and were experiencing troubling side effects. With that news, Pogany began boning up on his pharmacology. He learned about a medical study showing that 29 percent of 500 travelers and tourists who took the drug had experienced neuropsychiatric side effects. He talked to reporters who linked the drug to instances of suicide. He read about Canadian troops who'd beaten a boy to death in Somalia in 1993 and about three Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who'd killed their wives and then themselves in 2002. They'd all taken Lariam. Soon reporters stopped calling Andrew Pogany, coward, and began calling Andrew Pogany, Lariam expert.
The Defense department began to feel the pressure. It dropped the cowardice charge, instead accusing Pogany of dereliction of duty, for which he could spend six months in prison and receive a dishonorable discharge. But they'd underestimated him.
"They picked the wrong person to call a coward," says Collins, his girlfriend. "He turned it around and came at them with a vengeance."
As his protracted legal battle wore on, Pogany heard disturbing news that increased his suspicions about Lariam. On March 14, 2004, a 36-year-old Fort Carson soldier who'd just returned from Iraq threatened his wife with a revolver in their Monument home and then, when the police arrived, shot and killed himself. The solder, it turned out, was William Howell, who had been part of Pogany's twelve-man team in Iraq.
In May of that year, Pogany's supervisors agreed to send him to a specialized Naval medical lab in San Diego for proper diagnosis. There, in a doctor's written notes, he received his vindication: "Drug toxicity antimalarials.... Likely Lariam toxicity."
Later, after he'd similarly diagnosed several other soldiers and his findings had reached the press, the doctor changed his tune; he was no longer certain if Lariam was the culprit. But the damage had been done. The Army dropped all charges against Pogany and, on April 14, 2005, he was medically retired because of permanent brain-stem damage due to Lariam toxicity. "Then I was unceremoniously walked to the door and told to take off," Pogany remembers. "I was told to never set foot on the 10th Special Forces Group compound again."
Peace is every step.
The words are written in elegant cursive on a strip of paper pasted inside the windshield of Pogany's Volkswagen, above the dreamcatcher dangling from the rearview mirror and the tangle of wires covering his center console that powers his cell phone — which, as he makes his way across Fort Carson, is ringing constantly, filling the car with a Monty Python ditty: Always look on the bright side of life... An NPR reporter wants to meet with him in Colorado Springs. Pogany, juggling the phone and the steering wheel, schedules it into his electronic calendar.
Always look on the bright side of life... A soldier found one of the business cards Pogany distributes around the base; he's hoping Pogany can help him. "Send me an e-mail with everything that happened, including your deployment dates. Do you have any of your medical records? Do you have copies of your mental-health care records?" he says before hanging up. "That will be a new case" — one of the handful he may get today.
This is Pogany's mobile workplace, one he drives to and from Fort Carson several times a week, on workdays that usually begin at 6 a.m. It's an extension of a home office in the basement of his brick bungalow in central Denver that features a heavily armed G.I. Joe doll, faded prayer flags on the wall, bookshelves stocked with veterans' benefits guides and mental-disorders manuals, and boxes and boxes of soldiers' case files. He pulls his VW office over at a barracks building and flashes the ID card hanging around his neck to the guard in the front lobby. He is there to meet with Nicholas.
"Fucking wild," Nicholas, 21, says of the twenty or so roadside bomb explosions he was exposed to in Iraq. "You hear it, but it's more like your ears start immediately ringing. It feels like a very strong, hot wind that knocks you back when they go off." He only realized their lasting toll once he got back from the war and ran a guy off the road in an inexplicable fit of rage. Later, he recounts with a wry laugh, he flipped out during a training exercise and put a gun to a passerby's head. "I just kind of lost it for a while."
Things weren't so funny when Nicholas's mother first called Pogany several months ago, the night her son was taken to the Evans Army Community Hospital for having suicidal thoughts. Nicholas had just been told he was being redeployed in four days — even though he'd been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a fractured femur and a traumatic brain injury, and labeled temporarily unfit for deployment.
Because of privacy considerations, the Army can't respond publicly to allegations such as Nicholas's, says Fort Carson Public Affairs Officer Dee McNutt in an e-mail. "Each case needs to be looked into separately, and the Army cannot release or discuss information regarding specific cases without a soldier's expressed written consent." But "soldiers are human and will tell their side of the story as they see it," she adds.
As for claims that Fort Carson has been deploying injured soldiers to Iraq, she says, "Medical personnel are responsible for making recommendations to commanders on what resources or level of care a soldier requires to be considered fully capable for deployment. Commanders know the assets available to them in theater and what accommodations can be made for the limitations of each individual soldier. Many times soldiers require care that is readily available in theater."
Pogany helped Nicholas's mother, Dawna Lynn, track down documents proving that his ailments and no-deployment status had been ignored. He encouraged her to contact a congressional subcommittee on military affairs, Fort Carson's inspector general and the installation's commanding general. Soon her son's story was one of the examples reporters were using to demonstrate that the Army was improperly shipping out injured soldiers in order to fill diminished ranks. "There was no way I could have sorted through the military bureaucracy if I didn't have somebody tell me how to do it," she says. "If I hadn't been aggressive and had the right person tell me what to do, my son would have been sent back to Iraq without the proper medical care."
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."
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."
So Pogany connected Darren and Teresa with the right medical experts, who agreed he had signs of head injury as well as dementia — and a brain scan this past October found multiple lesions on his brain. And now, finally, Teresa tells Pogany they seem to be getting somewhere. Darren was just sent to a Veterans Affairs medical center in California for evaluation and treatment. And the chief psychiatrist at the Evans Army hospital noted that "disinhibited behavior is quite common amongst individuals with brain injuries of this kind, and may have contributed to his episodes of behavioral dyscontrol in the past 6-8 months." Teresa's hoping it's enough to convince the district attorney to throw out his domestic-violence conviction and to get the Army to switch his administrative discharge process to a medical retirement with benefits.
Darren's potential medical retirement is the latest of several promising developments at Fort Carson. The installation and others like it have implemented "warrior transition units," where soldiers with physical or psychological injuries are allowed downtime for care and rehabilitation.
"In response to an identified need that soldiers and leaders required further awareness and education on mental health, Fort Carson developed a training program to help leaders and soldiers better understand how to identify behavioral health problems and provide assistance to their battle buddies," says McNutt.
The Behavioral Health Department at Evans has also stepped up its mental-health care efforts, she says, developing programs to readily identify and treat these problems. "With very few exceptions, soldiers can walk into the clinic without an appointment," she says. "By implementing these changes, it will reduce the time it takes to get an appointment and time spent waiting in the clinic to see a provider."
And — most surprising — Pogany, whose mug was once on Wanted posters across the base, now has the ear of Fort Carson's commander.
The phone calls are endless. Always look on the bright side of life... Soldiers, mothers, wives, looking for someone, anyone, who will listen, understand, maybe even help. Always look on the bright side of life... They come at night, on weekends, even during vacations. Always look on the bright side of life... They're calls Pogany has a hard time ignoring. One of the latest is from Denver resident Joel Hunt, a former Army specialist who was medically retired in October for chronic foot pain, a disability his Fort Carson superiors concluded didn't warrant a medical pension or health insurance. But Pogany has met with Hunt and knows that this veteran, who had a hard time filling out his own forms, has more problems than just a bad foot.
Collins, Pogany's girlfriend, worries about the constant phone calls. Maybe it's genetic, she thinks, a rebellious gene passed down from his insurgent father: "Asking him not to do this is like asking him not to breathe." Sometimes she wonders if it's something else, if he's fighting the same battle over and over again that started with his cowardice charge. "I think he struggles to keep balance in his life," she says. "What's his quote? 'If you want peace, fight for justice.' I think that's what drew him to the military, and that's why he does what he does now. I don't know anyone who is so persistent and committed."
Pogany's friends and colleagues say he's come a long way since he left the Army, since he was stuck in the toilet. He's found his calling, they say, and it's helped him get busy living. But even Pogany admits he's still broken, shattered — a fact he lives with every day. "It's a process," he says. "I'm definitely not all the way there. You have to understand, healing is ongoing. It's not something you do once and it's done."
Every time he drives through Monument on the way to Fort Carson, for example, he sees the face of his teammate Bill Howell, who put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. He used to dream about Howell, him and Kelly Hornbeck, his team sergeant who was killed in Iraq. "The Bill Howell dream was always the same. He and I meet up and talk. And he just says, 'Everything is going to be fine. Everything is gong to be okay. You will be okay.'" His dreams of Hornbeck, who called him a coward and refused him help in Iraq, aren't so encouraging. In one, Pogany runs into an old girlfriend at an airport. "She said, 'Hey, I want you to meet my new husband,'" Pogany remembers. "Then the guy turned around and it's Kelly, and half his head is blown off."
Now there's another casualty from his Special Forces team. Pogany just got the call: Lehman, the medic who'd passed out the Lariam pills, the Green Eggs and Ham guy, had checked himself into an on-base hotel last week, numbed his arm with Lidocaine, and then sliced himself up and bled to death — the day after Pogany had seen him. "What are the odds of me running into him the day before he takes his own life?" Pogany wonders, shaking his head. "I wish I could have..."
He trails off, thinking of their brief conversation. Lehman had talked about Iraq; how, in hindsight, Lariam had messed up everyone on the team. "Manic Mondays," they'd call the days they took the pills. Laughing, he even brought up the Green Eggs and Ham thing. But Lehman, looking disheveled, also mentioned his problems now, his PTSD and TBI, and said was hoping Pogany could help him. Pogany gave him his card, and then that was it. "He took his green beret out of his pocket, put it on and walked out the door," Pogany remembers. "That was the last time I saw him."
They next time he sees him may be in his dreams.