One Marine saved from flawed misconduct process
Speaker 1: (00:00)
The wars are over, but the battle is just started for many troops, dealing with injuries, KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh says one 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.
Speaker 2: (00:20)
I started working out again. I've gotten healthy. I don't feel I don't have that dark cloud over me that I used to have.
Speaker 3: (00:26)
I met Cooper Williams just as the sun was coming up outside a coffee house, an hour north of San Diego. He sounded up beat last December. He'd been worried about being kicked out of the Marines after 17 years. Am I going to lose
Speaker 2: (00:40)
Because everything is my family. Are we going to be put out after 18 years without any, any insurance, any, uh, assistance based off of everything that I went through and all the mitigating circumstances? Yeah, that was, that was taxing on myself and my family.
Speaker 3: (00:55)
He'd been spiraling after multiple deployments, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He was self-medicating a horrific family tragedy had made things worse when his parents were involved in a murder suicide Williams asked for help. He entered a 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. He faced this missile from the core,
Speaker 2: (01:24)
From the time of the incident. Uh, till now it's been about a year and eight months.
Speaker 3: (01:30)
His attorney sent letters to his command showing Williams, wasn't receiving the proper medication, but he still faced being discharged. Then earlier this year, Williams was told one of the generals in charge of his case changed his mind. Lieutenant general, ed Banta now thought William should be allowed to retire.
Speaker 2: (01:47)
You know, there's a lot that was going on at that time. Both medication wise, personal wise, um, dealing with the death of my parents still living,
Speaker 3: (01:56)
But it wasn't over Williams was still required to face a board of inquiry. The process hung over him for 20 months until a panel of three officers recently ruled in his favor. So it feels,
Speaker 2: (02:08)
It feels very good to have the weight lifted off of your shoulder in the cloud of the unknown and the fear of the unknown, because that weighing over you within itself is a very, uh, emotionally taxing thing, I guess, even for you and your family. So very glad.
Speaker 4: (02:26)
And if you have someone who suffered from mental health or TBI issues, they're likely to commit Mormons.
Speaker 3: (02:30)
Esther leave-in Farth is with the national veterans legal services program. She says the military typically doesn't reverse itself. Even in cases where service related medical conditions play a role in the misconduct. Even VAR says the Marines and other services need a single set of rules. So troops with TBI or traumatic brain injuries or PTSD, don't go through a long process where they risk losing everything because
Speaker 4: (02:57)
It's a symptom of their mental health conditions. They're likely to hurt themselves. They're likely to have other adverse effects. If you're two years just waiting to find out what's going to happen to you and without proper treatment, without being able to move on to
Speaker 3: (03:10)
In a letter obtained by KPBS, the new commander of wounded warrior battalion west Lieutenant Colonel, Rebecca Harvey says Williams did not receive proper treatment. Initially she revealed that mental health resources have gone down more than 50% at a time when the Marines are seeing more cases like Williams, she added 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 between his treatment and the separation process, she says the Marine Corps failed Williams for his part. Williams is ready to move on with his life.
Speaker 2: (03:52)
It made me better as a person. It made me dig deep and to find out who I am inside and, and who I am and how I'm going to respond because there's two different ways you can respond in those situations. So you can either go darker or you can come into the light.
Speaker 1: (04:10)
Joining me is KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh, and Steve welcome.
Speaker 3: (04:15)
Speaker 1: (04:16)
Why don't military personnel suffering from PTSD and other service related medical problems retire sooner? Why would they stay in the service?
Speaker 3: (04:25)
Um, you know, there are a number of reasons. One, I don't think anybody wants to be forced out of a job and forced into retirement. If they think they can still do the job mainly they want to serve and they're trained to overcome any obstacles so they can continue to serve. The problem is they know if they admit they have an issue, especially a mental health issue, that they may be declared a nondeployable and then they could be forced out of the service. On the flip side, the, the pace of deployment over the last 20 years has been incredibly high, especially for people with certain kinds of skillsets like this, the ones that skills that Cooper Williams has. So Williams was in demand. He became a warrant officer within a few years of arriving at the wounded warrior battalion at Pendleton's. So until recently, you know, he, his career was, uh, was on the upswing until he, he finally had to admit that he had to do something about, you know, his PTSD, you know, they have changed the military retirement system though. So it used to be that you'd have to put in 20 years or you'd really get next to nothing. Uh, now, you know, you CA it's, the system has changed. So you kind of take out what you put in, so somebody can put in 10 years and they still have something, some sort of retirement.
Speaker 1: (05:40)
And you say the Marine that you interviewed, chief warrant officer Cooper had been self-medicating while he was involved in the incidents that almost had him dismissed. Do you mean he was drinking too much?
Speaker 3: (05:51)
Drinking is part of it. There were also prescription medications. Um, you know, back in December, when we first this story, he told me about going into an ER at a civilian hospital, so he could get medication there and avoid that, having that treatment go on his military record, which, uh, from what I hear is not all that uncommon. So when he was at the wounded warrior battalion, he was treated, you know, he was on medication initially, but they didn't seem to recognize the severity of his condition. The meds he was being prescribed, uh, were actually seeming to make his symptoms worse. His wife, uh, described, seeing his personality just completely change.
Speaker 1: (06:30)
And tell us more about the wounded warriors battalion. How does it help Marines? Who've been injured mentally and physically
Speaker 3: (06:38)
A little bit of history here. They were founded back in 2007, after several years of war and in both in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, there were these horror stories of troops who were left unattended in barracks, and some of them who killed themselves, people were falling through the cracks after leaving Walter Reed and the other facilities. This was designed to be a one-stop shop for people to process their injuries and if possible, return to their home units and go on with their careers,
Speaker 1: (07:07)
The wounded warriors battalion reports that its resources have gone down more than 50%. Who's making the decision to cut those funds.
Speaker 3: (07:17)
Well, that is, that's the big question, Maureen. And the simple answer is, I don't know the answer that letter, that, uh, the comments about the cut of 50%, that was in the letter from Lieutenant Colonel, Rebecca Harvey, she's the new head of wounded warrior battalion west here at camp Pendleton. She wrote that in defense of, uh, Cooper Williams at his board of inquiry. Um, that's where she talked about the, you know, the cuts and mental health services. It admitting that the Marines were slow to treat and diagnose Williams, you know, saying that there were also other troops like him in the pipeline. You know, I filed data requests with the Marines to find out just who are in these battalions now, uh, you know, I'm interested in just how many of these, these Marines inside the wounded warrior battalions are facing in voluntarily being separated, just like Cooper Williams. And right now I just really, haven't seen many answers beyond that really telling letter.
Speaker 1: (08:11)
Well, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, why is it now that wounded warriors is seeing more cases like Cooper Williams?
Speaker 3: (08:20)
Again, that was in the letter. And my guess is it's a lagging indicator. People who have seen the most action over the last two decades are now at the back end of their careers. You have people whose entire careers were marked by consistent deployments and, and, and constant combat, uh, something that prior to nine 11, most people would have gone through entire careers without seeing combat now in there at the back half of their careers, they may have a delayed treatment like Williams for more than a decade, just so they can keep deploying. And they were encouraged to do that so that they could be available to be deployed people, uh, who were cycling through training and deployment are now back at home for longer periods. Their behavior starts to catch up with them. Um, they can become disciplined problems. That's what we saw in the case of Cooper Williams though. Improper diagnosis clearly played a role in his case. He really hadn't seen any major issues until he came actually to the wounded warrior battalion. And he hadn't seen any issues since those two DUIs.
Speaker 1: (09:25)
Did Cooper Williams share with you any plans he has after the Marines?
Speaker 3: (09:30)
Yeah, he seemed very when I met him the second time after all these months, um, he has a young family he's thinking about going to school. He may be, uh, you know, he's going to do something in the medical field. He's got a lead on a job working for a company in Texas, basically. He's just, he's very upbeat. And now very optimistic about the future. It's a real change from the first time when I talked to him when he was really in the throws of all of this, and it was looking quite bleak because these cases though, they're common, uh, an actual reversal, like what we've seen in his case is still quite uncommon. He really is, you know, quite unique. Okay.
Speaker 1: (10:11)
And speaking with KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh, and
Speaker 3: (10:15)
Steve. Thank you. Thanks Maureen.
Speaker 5: (10:18)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”