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One Marine saved from flawed misconduct process

Cooper Williams.jpg
Marine Chief Warrant Officer Cooper Williams discusses his case after being allowed to retire.

After two decades, the wars are over, but the battle has just started for many troops dealing with injuries.

One injured Marine scored a rare win in a system that advocates say invites troops with PTSD to commit more misconduct, while the military decides their fate.

Chief Warrant Officer Cooper Williams stopped at a coffee house an hour north of San Diego.

“I started working out again,” he said. "I've gotten healthy. I don’t have that dark cloud over me that I used to have.”

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Even though he is going through the process to retire from the Marine Corps, he wanted the early morning meeting to avoid any hint that he was meeting with a reporter during what would be his duty hours.

Williams sounded upbeat. Last December he’d been worried about being kicked out of the Marines after more than 17 years.

“Am I going to lose everything? My family, are we going to be put out after 18 years without any, any insurance, any assistance, based off of everything that I went through,” he said. “Yeah, that was taxing on myself and my family.”

He’d been spiraling. After multiple deployments, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, Williams was self medicating. A horrific family tragedy made things worse when his parents were involved in a murder suicide.

Williams eventually asked for help. He entered the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, where Marines are treated for mental and physical injuries. But in the space of one month, he racked up two DUIs, while in treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He faced dismissal from the Corps.

“From the time of the incident till now, it's been about a year and eight months,” he said. “There's a lot of things I've gone through.”

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His civilian attorney, Jay Sullivan, sent letters to Williams’ command, showing that he wasn’t receiving the proper medication. He still faced being discharged. Then, earlier this year, Williams was told one of the generals in charge of his case changed his mind.

Lt. Gen. Ed Banta now thought Williams should be allowed to retire.
“It's not as simple as it looks,” Williams said. “There's a lot that was going on at that time. Both medication wise, personal wise dealing with the death and my parents”

But it wasn’t over. Williams was still required to face a board of inquiry at Camp Pendleton. The process hung over him for 20 months, until a panel of three officers recently ruled in his favor.

“So it feels very good to have the weight lifted off of your shoulder and the cloud of the unknown and the fear of the unknown because that weighing over you, within itself is a very emotionally taxing being, I guess, for you and your family, very glad,” he said.

The military typically doesn’t reverse itself, even in cases where service related medical conditions play a role in the misconduct, said Esther Leibfarth, with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a non-profit dedicated to helping veterans upgrade their discharges.

“If you have someone who's suffering from mental health or TBI issues they're likely to commit more misconduct,” she said.

The Marines and the other services need a single set of rules, she said, so troops with TBI, or Traumatic Brain injuries, or PTSD don’t go through a long process where they risk losing everything.

“Because it's a symptom of their mental health condition they're likely to hurt themselves,” she said. “They're likely to have other adverse effects, with your two years just waiting to find out what's going to happen to you, without proper treatment without being able to move on to your life.”

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One Marine saved from flawed misconduct process

In a letter obtained by KPBS, the new commander of the Wounded Warrior Battalion West, Lt. Col. Rebecca Harvey said she supports Williams’ claims. She took command in May. She states that Williams did not receive proper treatment, initially. She blames some of the delay on COVID-19, but the letter states that over the last couple of years the mental health resources available to the wounded warrior battalions have gone down more than 50%, at a time when the Marines are seeing more cases like Williams.

“Marines like Chief Warrant Officer Williams have served for many years, often ignoring their injuries to ensure they can deploy when asked. We owe them more,” the letter states.

Between being slow to diagnosis and properly treat Williams, and the separation process, she says the Marine Corps failed Williams.

For his part, Williams says he is ready to move on with his life.
“It made me dig deep and to find out who I am inside and also learn more about myself and who I am," he said. “You can either go darker or you can come into the light. I chose to go into the light.”