One Camp Pendleton Marine Is Fighting To Stay In The Corp
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Photo by KPBS Staff
The Pentagon has declared the military services should take into account the wounds of war in cases when vets are discharged for misconduct. But the discretion that applies to veteran doesn't apply to troops still on active duty. One Camp Pendleton Marine, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, is fighting to stay in the Corps.
Cooper Williams is a chief warrant officer. He has been in the Marine Corps for 17 and a half years, but he may not be a Marine for much longer. His career includes two tours in Iraq in the mid 2000s followed by a tour in Afghanistan. He remembers being in a convoy when a roadside bomb exploded.
“The whole front right side of the charter bus was blown off. I was the first one there and ... It's like mayhem, people screaming, people crying”
It was one of several incidents that left him with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Williams says he ignored his problems for years, as he pursued a career in intelligence. His wife Andrea says she watched him change.
“Things just set him off, things that wouldn't normally set somebody off. And then more reclusive. Started being depressed. Not being able to sleep, all those things. And again, life just went on,” she said.
Violence in his personal life compounded problems that started on the battlefield. His parents died in a murder suicide.
“And I was, I never forget the day. It was December 23. Two days prior to Christmas,” he said.
It was 2016. His parents were getting a divorce when his father killed his mother, then himself, back in their hometown in Mississippi.
“To think I took it bad. My brother took it way worse, and I took it bad,” he said.
His personal life was collapsing, but Williams’ career as a Marine was at its height. He was made a warrant officer in the coveted military intelligence field. But he was falling apart.
“The panic attacks became much more severe, like just the impact physiologically, physically, mentally,” he said.
Williams started drinking heavily. In 2019, he applied for a transfer to the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton. It’s where Marines go to rehabilitate. He completed treatment for PTSD and alcoholism. It’s also where he received two DUI’s in less than a month. He says it was drinking combined with a change in medication.
“I remember waking up and then, but what I was doing was just blacking out. And then just doing things that were uncharacteristic to me,” he said.
Because of the DUI’s, Williams' 17-plus year career is on the line. The Marines have started the process of involuntarily separating him from the Corps. That means a potential loss in pension, health care, and GI bill benefits.
“This is the rest of my life,” he said. “I have five children. I've been in the Marine Corps almost eight years now. ...And you're just going to take everything from me?”
Thousands of troops with PTSD have been discharged for misconduct over the years. Starting in 2014, the Pentagon began requiring services to consider how much the wounds of war played a role in troops’ behavior. That re-evaluation helps veterans trying to upgrade their discharges, after they’ve left the service. That consideration doesn’t always extend to active duty troops.
Esther Leibfarth is an attorney with the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington DC. She says the rules need to change so the military looks more seriously at the wounds of war - before kicking-out a service member in the first place.
“We need to stop the problem before it occurs. It[s not enough to do it post discharge. It’s too late. The damage has been done.”
Meanwhile Cooper Williams is appealing to the Marine Corps to at least give him an in-person hearing. At the moment, he can only wait.
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.