Longform

The Good Soldier

Page 2 of 8

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.

"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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner