Still a burden to bear

Use of the punitive discharge for troops with mental illness and brain injury remains under scrutiny two years after a Gazette investigation found the service kicked troops out for misconduct that could be tied to their medical conditions. Alvaro is one of hundreds of Fort Carson soldiers given punitive discharges in recent years.

By: Tom Roeder - tom.roeder@gazette.com

Published: October 25, 2015

Above: Kash Alvaro, who suffered head injuries from a bombing in 2009, was kicked out of the Army in 2012 after a series of missteps and run-ins with his command. To the Army, Alvaro remains an other-than-honorable soldier. Photo by Christian Murdock - The Gazette

TRINIDAD — The Department of Corrections seemed eager to hire Alvaro, 25, until they saw three words on his Army discharge papers:

Other Than Honorable.

“That was a real kick in the boys,” Alvaro said at his modest Trinidad home.

Use of the punitive discharge for troops with mental illness and brain injury remains under scrutiny two years after a Gazette investigation found the service kicked troops out for misconduct that could be tied to their medical conditions. Alvaro is one of hundreds of Fort Carson soldiers given punitive discharges in recent years.

The dismissals brand troops for life as having failed in uniform and eliminate most veterans benefits that troops can receive after they hang up the uniform.

Discharge difficult to remove

In some ways, Alvaro is luckier than most. The Department of Veterans Affairs chose to ignore the Army’s characterization of his military career and provides him with medical benefits and disability payments.

But that discharge hangs around Alvaro’s neck.

“When they do a background check, that’s the first thing that pops up,” he said.

And it’s more difficult to remove than one of Alvaro’s tattoos. Alvaro said he applied for a correction to his records two years ago, but he hasn’t heard back.

To the Army, Alvaro remains an other-than-honorable soldier.

Alvaro holds his daughter, Leilani, while his wife, Devondra, feeds their newborn, Uriah, in August at home in Trinidad. Photo by Christian Murdock - The Gazette

He was kicked out in 2012 after missteps and run-ins with his command. The final straw came when Alvaro ran away from Fort Carson for two weeks after an argument with a sergeant. He was charged with being absent without leave.

Alvaro argued that his misconduct was caused by his injuries, which still haunt him. Since leaving the Army, he has been hospitalized almost monthly for the seizures he has suffered since the blast.

In 2013, Alvaro pleaded his case to the VA and won health benefits and disability pay.

I wish I would have fought

Alvaro enlisted in the Army at 18 in 2008. After training as a combat engineer, he was assigned to Fort Carson’s 4th Engineer Battalion, which went to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009. That was the first time the Army had moved a unit between theaters of war since World War II.

He served as a gunner in a detachment assigned to sweeping roads for bombs, a job as tedious as it was dangerous. In all, Alvaro’s company found 300 bombs.

A bomb they found in October 2009 launched Alvaro across a road and gave him a concussion. Alvaro said he tried to hide his injury because he didn’t want to be sent home from war.

“Everybody else was staying, so I stayed,” he said.

When the battalion returned to Fort Carson, though, Alvaro’s symptoms had grown too frequent and severe to hide. He was treated for brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Alvaro had disciplinary scrapes before the injury, including one for taking another soldier’s phone. As his health declined, his bad behavior drew more attention. Alvaro was cited for talking back to superiors, showing up late and other infractions.

Then he went AWOL.

On his return to Fort Carson, Alvaro was jailed for nearly a month. After weeks behind bars, the Army offered Alvaro the option of leaving with an other-than-honorable discharge.

“I wish I would have fought,” Alvaro said.

He signed off on a document that kicked him out of the Army with no benefits and a black mark on his record.

The Army doesn’t care

A 2013 investigation by The Gazette found that the service increasingly pushed wounded combat veterans out the door with other-than-honorable discharges for minor misconduct.

Kash Alvaro holds the Army Commendation Medal certificate that he earned while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with Fort Carson’s 4th Engineer Battalion. Photo by Christian Murdock - The Gazette

The inquiry found that commanders twisted the arms of some wounded troops — including those whose misconduct was later attributed to mental wounds of war and brain injuries — until they signed paperwork for a “Chapter 10” discharge that allows troops to escape court-martial by leaving the Army with punitive discharges.

“The Army doesn’t care,” Alvaro said.

Alvaro and others have alleged the practice saved the government millions in medical and benefits costs.

The Army denied the allegations, but the service’s use of other-than-honorable discharges dipped after The Gazette’s investigation gained national attention and earned a Pulitzer Prize. Discharges under Chapter 10 dipped to 604 in 2014, down from 980 in 2013. The Army has implemented stricter reviews of discharges for wounded troops.

Kash Alvaro holds his daughter, Leilani, in August at home in Trinidad. After Alvaro suffered several setbacks this summer, his wife left with the children in September. Photo by Christian Murdock - The Gazette

“The Army has made and continues to make great strides in how we diagnose and take care of our wounded warriors beyond the point of injury,” Army spokeswoman Tatjana Christian said in an email. “We have invested extensive resources to care for soldiers and families. Our medical community and leadership are extremely focused on taking care of our wounded, ill and injured as they recover for a possible return to duty or transition to life outside the military.”

But Alvaro remains ineligible for Army medical retirement and on-post health care given to those who are medically retired.

“They might as well have let me loose in Afghanistan and let the Taliban kill me,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, said the Army needs to re-examine the treatment given to wounded veterans who stepped out of line and needs a stricter review process to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated.

“We need to make it very clear: They can’t discard military personnel who serve this country.”

Addressing immediate needs

Alvaro said he plans to someday take the Army to task over his discharge to get his black mark removed, but he’s got little time for that now. Immediate needs require his attention.

In August, Alvaro was hospitalized for seizures, his second child was born, he lost his truck to repossession and lost all the food in his refrigerator when his power was shut off. His wife left with the kids in September as financial pressures piled up.

“I have $60,000 in medical bills alone,” Alvaro lamented.

Alvaro said what he needs is a job and a chance to prove he’s not the man the Army described on his discharge form.

“I don’t care what any of them have to say,” he said. “I still know who I am.”