Active duty US Army, Infantry, three years
Editor’s Note: Mitchell* is a white active duty soldier in his mid-twenties, serving in an Infantry unit. At the time of his interview in 2012, he had been in the Army for three years, and the year prior had broken his back in a training exercise, resulting in severe, long-term injuries. He and his wife were expecting a baby at the time of the interview, and Mitchell was being evaluated for a pending medical retirement.
I’m from Albuquerque. I joined the National Guard when I was in high school, and then I went through basic training—I went through OSUT, station unit training. When I came back, I filled in papers to go on active duty. I went on active duty in December of 2009 and I was assigned to South Korea. I arrived in South Korea in about January or February of 2010. I did my year there, and came over to Fort Hood. I’ve been here a little over a year.
It’s kind of hard to say what I wanted to get out of the military. I wanted to see the world and, in the meantime, do something that was meaningful—something I thought had purpose, I guess.
I broke my back at in training in 2011. Shortly after arriving at Fort Hood, I went with my unit to the National Training Center out at Fort Irwin for a month. I suffered two fractures to my T-11 and T-12 vertebrae. When we came back, it was a battle to get the help that I needed.
I went to sick call and complained of back pain. I did that a few times. I tried to get an MRI, but the individuals in charge of me refused to give me one. They sent me to a knee and back class instead. I think that it was kind of foolish to refer me to a knee and back class.
Then I went to physical therapy. But I kept trying to get an MRI because I knew that there was something seriously wrong with my back. None of the doctors were willing to admit that. They just kept putting me through physical therapy, which I couldn’t do because it was too painful, and I had not been treated properly for my injuries.
After seeing a physical therapist for a while, I just decided to pay out of my own pocket to see a neurologist at Central Texas Neurology. I explained to him my situation—that there wasn’t much being done to help me or to evaluate me. The Army can say that they tried to help me by putting me through physical therapy, but they didn’t help me. You can’t put somebody through physical therapy without identifying the problem.
I was told that I may have strained a muscle, but having been very active—I played basketball in high school, and I did a lot of PT even when I came with the Army, I scored a 293—I knew what a muscle strain felt like. I tried to explain to the doctors that there was no way this was a muscle strain, but they ignored me and just made their diagnosis based on opinion, not fact.
[I have] muscle spasms. My back becomes really tight. That was actually something that the physical therapist noted, but still she refused to order an MRI. I have a lot of pain running down my back into the upper portion of my legs and my thighs.
I was running and I had a lot of gear on me [when the accident happened]. The unit that we were attached to at NTC, during one of the missions forgot to bring their automatic weapon. So I was picked to carry an automatic weapon, and I also had all my ammunition and my own gear. Then I ended up having to carry the CLS stuff because my team leader had ended up not being able to; in NTC, you have these graders, and they sit there and say, “Well, you’re down, you’re blind” or whatever…it’s all a fake scenario. I had to carry his gear, or the CLS stuff, because he went down. So I was carrying a lot of gear, and at one point in time, I was running and I fell. I landed on my butt, and that’s what caused the compression fracture.
Editor’s Note: Mitchell was asked how long it had been after that until he got an MRI and figured out what his injury was.
Months… Finally, I got fed up with the Army system refusing to pay for an MRI. What it all comes down to is budget cuts. Maybe the Army doesn’t want to pay for an MRI or they just don’t care—I don’t know. But eventually, around June of 2011, months after I injured myself, I finally went to see a civilian doctor, and he thought there was something wrong, so he ordered an MRI. I took that back to the Army, and the Army still didn’t want to give me an MRI, even though I had a recommendation from a board-certified neurologist.
So what they did was they just sent me to another doctor, who in turn agreed to the MRI. Finally, I took the MRI, and they found that there were two deformities from the fracture. The reason the bones were deformed is because even a major fracture, after six weeks, the bone won’t heal. So it was healed, but you could still see that it had been fractured because the vertebrae, the T-11 and T-12 are deformed—they’re wedged like this, instead of even they’re more like that, which is what causes the degenerative disc disease. There are two protruding discs in my T-4 and T-5, and the wedging, the unevenness of the bone is what causes the muscle spasm because it’s uneven, so it’s pulling at the muscles. At that point in time, they initiated an MEB.
…I still have muscle spasms. The degenerative disc disease is permanent. There’s also thecal sac compression, which is the thecal sacs around the spinal cord, and it’s compressed because degenerative disc disease is pushing on the fical sac and causing significant compression. But I don’t know if it’s gotten worse, or if it would have been better [with earlier treatment].
It was unfair. I did have a profile that was written by the physical therapist. I believe it was a no lifting, no bending profile, but I was still made to work in the motor pool [while injured]. I still had to lift equipment that weighed probably 40 or 50 pounds, with a back injury. On top of that, I was working in the motor pool where you have moving tanks, Bradleys moving. That’s the first time I ever took a pain killer in my life.
[I took] Vicodin, I think maybe seven or eight months. I stopped it a few months ago, and the doctor agreed with me, but he’s an off-post provider, a civilian provider. Way after my unit left to Iraq, I asked to be taken off of it, because of the headaches and how you get really agitated when you come down from it. But at the time, when my unit was here, I was working in the motor pool and I was taking the Vicodin, and I had a muscle relaxant.
My squad leader and the non-commissioned officer in charge of me were aware that I had been taking painkillers. They were aware of my profile. I don’t think it’s safe for somebody on painkillers to be in motor pool, where you have motor vehicles and tanks moving about. Inside a tank, your visibility is very reduced, which is why you need a guide. And if you’re dealing with somebody whose mind is altered due to these pain killers—if I’m not aware of my surroundings, and the guy in the tank can’t see well—it’s just not safe. I informed my NCO that I was taking pain killers, and that were sedating me, because they were central nervous system depressants, so my ability to react was severely reduced and all that. I don’t think I needed to be in the motor pool. It definitely was not safe.
You’re not even supposed to drive when you’re taking painkillers, so why was I being forced to work in a motor pool with tanks and humvees driving around? It definitely wasn’t right to have me out there.
Editor’s Note: Mitchell clarified that he experienced pressure to violate his profile by lifting and other duties in the motor pool, and that the pressure came from his squad leader, who was a staff sergeant.
I wasn’t aware of MEDCEN-01 until maybe about a month before Curtis left [the military].
I’ve always been told that a profile is a recommendation and that a commander doesn’t have to abide by it. However, if he doesn’t abide by it, and it results in further injury, then he could be held accountable, which I doubt he would be. A profile shouldn’t be a recommendation, which, according to MEDCEN-01, it’s not. But I wasn’t aware that MEDCEN-01 existed. I don’t think my commander was either.
…I’ve had several [profiles]. My first profile was when I went through physical therapy—so maybe May, 2011… To be honest, I can’t recall the specifics. I do have a copy of it at home. That was before the MRI. If you’re in physical therapy for an injury, it’s pretty common procedure for them to also issue a profile.
There was [a re-evaluation prior to it expiring]. The Army doesn’t want to issue out profiles, and it wasn’t a permanent profile—I want to say it was between one and three months. Then I stopped seeing the physical therapist, and I had to get another profile, and all that did was recommend a MEB. They didn’t really write that profile to protect me. They wrote it because me and my platoon sergeant walked in to see the lieutenant, because my platoon sergeant wanted to see whether I was going to deploy or not. And the lieutenant wrote a profile just to refer MEB.
It did not protect me. It was not detailed enough. Based on what I’ve seen, it’s common for providers not to write very detailed profiles, unless a soldier is very demanding. To get the current profile that I have, I had to be very demanding, which I shouldn’t have to be. The medical provider should realize that, being in the Army, you’re made to do a lot of strenuous things, and if that profile is not adequate, then you’re going to have to do those things.
Maybe they’re being pressured from above. Maybe they don’t care. I think it depends. With my lieutenant [a PA], I think he just didn’t care. He looked at my MRI, and said, “Okay, so, so what?” Exact words.
I don’t know what his degree of [medical] training is, but he sat there and told me that it wasn’t serious, when it was. Not even two hours before that, I had seen a specialist who said I had serious structural abnormalities. I can’t speak for every provider in the Army, but with this lieutenant, I think he just legitimately did not care.
Based on what I have seen, I think that [medical providers] are more concerned with getting soldiers back to work. They serve the Army, not the soldier. They take an enlistment, just like I did, and their obligation is to the Army; they don’t take an oath to individual soldiers. I honestly think that the Army’s medical system should be run solely by civilians. I think that the private sector is always better than the government, whether it be in economics, in business, or in health care. I think that I should receive health care from a doctor who has his own practice.
I don’t think that chain of command should be able to pressure PAs into rewriting a profile, or maybe making it a little bit more lenient. You can’t pressure a civilian. You can’t tell a Baylor School of Medicine graduate, who knows more about neurology than sergeant first class so-and-so ever will, that he needs to change a profile. You can’t tell him that he’s wrong. But a PA, a lieutenant, I don’t know.
…I’ve seen [other] soldiers being made to work beyond their profiles. I’ve never seen somebody say, “Hey, go break your profile.” They don’t do it that way, because they’ve been in long enough to play the system. But you can subtly push someone into breaking their profile. Most soldiers, they just don’t care. On the rear, what I see in a lot of soldiers is that they’re fed up with the Army. They’ve been wronged in one way or the other, and they just don’t care—if they do it, fine, whatever. If the soldiers do stand up, they’re afraid of hazing, I guess; which we see in the media, we’ve seen a few cases of hazing that kind of shed light. There were two soldiers that killed themselves recently.
Hazing is very common in the United States Army. It’s just not well known. Any lower enlisted soldier can tell you that hazing is common. If you stand up for yourself, then you might just get hazed. I think a lot of soldiers are afraid of reprisal. If they stand up, then they’re going to get yelled at or treated differently.
I’ve seen it. It’s happened to me. When I was in NTC, I was told by a corporal to get down and do push-ups with my buddy. Actually, his exact words were, “Your buddy’s fox is getting smoked, why don’t you go out and join him?” I told him I wasn’t going to do it. I did it respectfully at Parade Rest. Then I had an NCO who flipped out and told me to go and do this exercise, and I said, “No, I’m not going to do it, sergeant.” I’m not going to be bullied, bottom line. Then the NCO put his hands on me. He started screaming at me, poking me in the chest. At that point, I just said, “Sergeant, I’m going to walk away,” and I did. He grabbed me by my arm and pulled me back; at that point, I got physical with him. I put my hands in his face, right on his face, and we got into a physical confrontation.
So I was standing up, and I was being hazed. I was the new guy in the unit. Corporal tried to smoke me, which by Army regulations is not allowed. That’s another issue with the Army—there’s a lot of non-commissioned officers out there that either don’t care about the regulations or they don’t know them. But I know that smoking is banned in the Army—it’s called corrective training, and you can’t give corrective training when there’s no action that needs to be corrected.
[The stigma] is just the Army culture. All these policies that the Army has are just a front. They have to be able to say, “Well, we’ve been trying to address hazing; we’ve been trying to address rape; we’ve been trying to make people with mental illness seem accepted; we’ve been trying to reduce the stigma.” But all that is a front. What happens on the ground, from what I’ve seen, is that if you have a profile, nine times out of 10 you’re going to be labeled a shitbag.
Editor’s Note: Mitchell was asked if he thinks the stigma discourages other soldiers from getting care when they need it. He continued by reflecting on what got him to the point of being able to stand up and advocate for his own needs, despite that stigma.
Of course it does. Nobody wants to deal with that. I think some people are less likely to go on sick call and get a profile—or stand up or utilize their profile—because they don’t want to be labeled a shitbag.
I don’t care what the Army thinks. The only opinion that matters is mine. I’ve thought that way from day one, even before I came in the Army. I could care less what some five-star general thinks. I came into the Army with a 293 PT score. I could outdo most Army Rangers. I injured myself and I needed to take care of myself. That’s just my mentality. I don’t care what labels are thrown out there at me. It doesn’t bother me.
Some soldiers aren’t that confident. They don’t have that.
Honestly, I think that [change] starts with the soldier. A soldier has to advocate for himself. But if you really wanted to make it so that he can go into sick call and not feel embarrassed or ashamed, you’d have to change the Army culture.
In Basic Training, if somebody is suicidal, they have to wear a big orange vest. Drill sergeants sit there and demonize this individual. I’ve seen it. They take your shoelaces; you’ve got to have an escort everywhere you go. They’re demonized. It’s really bad. The Army can say this doesn’t happen. A general who doesn’t see his Joe’s, who doesn’t see what happens on the ground, can sit there and say this doesn’t happen. But I can tell you because I’ve been there on the ground that it does happen—that from day one, mental health patients are treated like crap. So when you go into your unit, if that’s what you see from the start, you’re not going to want to be that guy. You’re not going to want to be treated like that.
The Army says it’s for safety. This guy’s got to wear an orange vest for his safety. This guy’s got to have his shoelaces taken for safety. And he’s got to have three guys hovering over him while he sleeps for his safety.
The Army sits there and says, “We’re doing that to protect the soldier,” but that’s demeaning to have to sit there and walk around with an orange vest. Guess what? Everybody knows that that dude with three guys walking around him, walking with him everywhere with an orange vest and no shoelaces—everybody knows that he’s got mental health issues. Is that fair? You’re putting his business out there inadvertently. The Army’s good. They know how to treat people like crap and make it seem legitimate.
I don’t think [profile violation] made it worse. I’d have to get another MRI to say. But the profile that the lieutenant wrote for me was not helpful at all. It didn’t protect me for my condition, it was very vague. That actually was in one of my Senatorial inquiries—that this profile was too vague, it didn’t protect me, and I couldn’t get it changed. I ended up having to jump down from a tank, and that really hurt. So there have been times when my profile didn’t protect me enough, and I had to go to the ER.
A lot of things, like shopping, are difficult. I get really agitated when I’m on my feet for so long. I get crabby because I’m in pain, and I just want to be done. I’m like, “Hurry up, let’s go, let’s get this done, we’ll get it another day, let’s just leave.” I can’t do a lot of things. I can’t exercise. I put on 40-50 pounds since I’ve injured myself. I can’t go out with my wife as much and do things that we like to do—hiking, bowling, things like that are extremely difficult.
…I think once I get out of the Army, I’m going to go and see some separate doctors. I’m going to go to North American Spinal Institute because I don’t have much faith in the Army’s medical system. I think once I get out and I’m able to see reliable doctors, I think that they’ll provide better treatment options for me. I think it’ll get better. I think there are great doctors out there, but I don’t think there are great military doctors—maybe a few.
[SRP] is what helped me. They were going to make me deploy. I mean, can you imagine deploying? It’s a numbers game. There was a PFC who deployed with a unit, and it was known that he had serious mental health issues, and they still made him deploy. He ended up killing a contractor in Kuwait. He shot the dude in the head and dumped his body in a port-a-john and tried to board a Black Hawk to the states. He was caught, obviously. Recently, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, because he was. I sat there on guard with the guy.
He shot the guy before I came to this unit, but I know what happened, because I sat on guard one time at the mental health facility at Fort Hood when they had him here. Some guy is dead now, and the PFC’s life is ruined because he should have gotten the treatment beforehand and been discharged from the Army. That’s the DoD’s failure, you know. They failed to tell the command that it’s not about numbers; that if you have somebody who can’t deploy, then he doesn’t deploy. There’s a man that’s dead, who was probably somebody’s husband and somebody’s father, because the Army failed.
…Both my platoon sergeant and my first sergeant wanted me to deploy. They were probably being pushed from a higher level. The Army’s about numbers. The Army likes to sit there and have some guy in a suit go on TV and say, “Well, we really care about your family,” but they don’t give a shit, and that’s the truth.
There was one NCO who helped me through this whole process. He saw that I was being wronged, and he really helped me to get the treatment that I needed… He’s old-school Army. The dude’s been on five deployments. He was injured, but before that, the dude’s a great soldier. And he was just looking out for a soldier… He drove me out to Central Texas Neurology, and he’s the one that helped me. There are good NCOs in the Army. There are amazing people. But there are a lot of pieces of shit.
A civilian [blocked the deployment]. Because of my profile, she said I couldn’t go. She said, “I don’t even know why you’re here.”
I hadn’t gotten the MRI yet. I came back and said, “Look, they said I can’t go,” but the sergeant major wanted me to go, so that’s when me and my platoon sergeant went to see the lieutenant, and they recommended the MEB.
…Based on what I’ve seen, I think substance abuse is a problem in my unit. But I don’t know if that’s from PTSD, or if it’s because a lot of the soldiers just hate the fact that they’re in the Army—they’ve been mistreated, they’ve been wronged, and they’re tired of being here and they just want out, and they resort to drugs or alcohol.
Even in the rear-D, there are guys who just want out. There was a kid who was told by his command that he was being sent back because his grandfather had died and he was going on his two-week leave from deployment. But that wasn’t the case. They sent him back, and they tried to chapter him for patterns of misconduct, but there were no patterns of misconduct. They had nothing. They had no counseling statements. You can’t discharge somebody for patterns of misconduct when there’s no way to prove. They didn’t like him, maybe. They just had a problem with him. I don’t know. I mean, it is that easy. We like to sit there and say that the Army is this place with these perfect people, and they can do no wrong. That’s as far from the truth as you can get.
There are times when leaders abuse their position. Like with counseling statements, the Army likes to say that it’s a great idea and that it’s beneficial to the soldier; but to me, it leaves a lot of room for abuse. Say I’m working, and my shoelace comes undone—that’s out of uniform. You can get a counseling statement for something that miniscule. After about three counseling statements, they can give you an Article 15.
A dude is a pound overweight—a pound overweight—and they’re trying to chapter him for being a pound overweight. I saw it even before the drawdown. A lot of times, if a leader does not like a subordinate, that leader will abuse the system. It seems like the system was created to be abused. It is so easy to kick somebody out. On paper, it’s legit—you’ve got three counseling statements, you’re not meeting the Army’s standards, you can’t stay in uniform.
Should you ruin somebody’s career over that? Is it fair? Instead of fixing the soldier, maybe the NCOs should look at themselves and say, “Maybe I’m the problem.” But you’ll never see that when somebody has that much power. NCOs are taught to think that they’re always right, that they’re the best of the best, that they’re superior. So somebody with that much power…is not going to come around and say, “Well, I’m wrong.” The Army’s a dictatorship. You follow orders, bottom line…it’s abusive.
[Under the drawdown] they’re starting to get people for whatever they can get them for. From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people that are getting discharged for stupid things that they can improve. If you’re a little bit overweight, you can improve that. I came into the Army 182 pounds, 293 on my PT test, and it’s just slowly declined because the Army’s PT program is garbage.
…I think the Army has realized that there’s a problem. There are people who have been wronged. I even read an article about it in Army Times. There are people who I think have PTSD who are being discharged for stuff.
There’s a soldier who does have PTSD, and he’s been abused by the unit on a rear-D. The abuse and the harassment has exasperated his mental health conditions, and he did smoke marijuana. I’m not saying it’s right, but now he’s being discharged for that. I mean, the guy’s sick. He’s being harassed.
…For a lot of the guys, [job prospects elsewhere] are not great. But that I really do believe is an individual thing… Some people will struggle. If you have mental health issues, it’s always going to be harder, no matter what. Whether it’s PTSD or Bipolar, I imagine that it’s always going to be very difficult for you to maintain a job. My sister has Bipolar—it’s difficult for her to get a job. I think anybody with a mental health issue is going to have trouble getting a job—that’s why the Army has to take care of them.
Editor’s Note: Mitchell clarified that he had received briefings on PTSD and TBI, as well as MST, and shared reflections on what he felt lacking in that training.
…A lot of [MST training] is bogus, to be honest. They give you training, but I don’t think they talk about what happens to guys enough. They rarely focus on men being wronged.
…I don’t think [MST prevalence] is the command’s fault at all; I think that’s the soldier’s fault. If someone chooses to go out and rape somebody, that’s their fault. If you choose to go and do bad things to people, that’s a choice that we all make. And it all starts at recruitment. The problem with the Army is that, for the past 10 years, they recruited anyone and they promoted anyone… In the Army, you study for a couple of weeks, you put on a show, you go in front of a sergeant major, and you pretend to be this person. You go in front of a board and you answer questions.
I like the Navy’s system of promotion: you can’t just go. I think it should be very difficult to get promoted. To become a non-commissioned officer, it should be very, very difficult. If you get a young guy who’s not experienced put in as an NCO, he might abuse that position or do the wrong thing. But if you make people wait longer to get promoted, and they have to go through rigorous testing, then maybe you might prevent rape, because you get somebody who’s older, who’s more experienced—he wasn’t just thrown NCO rank.
Some guy in a suit can stand on TV and say, no, we don’t just hand out rank, we don’t just throw it—but I’m here on the ground, and yeah, it does get thrown at people. You have a lot of instances where NCOs abuse their position and they might rape somebody.
…[MEB] has been pretty good. Because I did the Congressional thing, I was able to get more care. I was able to continue to see the civilian provider—that was authorized. They reimbursed what I paid for. They have to, and they should. They let me go see an off-post pain management provider, so it’s been fairly decent. But why should I have to fight like hell for something that I deserve? I’m not asking for free medical care. I worked for it. It’s all part of my contract.
I did a WT matrix and I didn’t qualify for it. I think you have to be really, really, really damaged to get into the WTU.
…They’re probably not going to give me 30% or more, because if you get 30%, you get Tri-Care for the rest of your life, and so do your spouse and your dependents. They’re probably going to give me 20%, which means I’m going to get a lump sum that I’m going to then, in turn, have to pay back. They’re supposed to take care of my back for the rest of my life, but to be honest, I’m going to avoid the Army doctors. My mom’s going to help me there financially so that I can see real doctors.
…I just want to see a civilian doctor outside of the Army, see what they offer me. The Army’s concerned with budget. I don’t know if surgery’s the best option. I’ve heard good and bad, but at least if I go to see a civilian doctor, I think I’ll get good treatment plans and an unbiased opinion; whereas, in the Army, doctors don’t want you to get surgery. You have the budget being cut, they’re cutting down on surgeries, so the doctor’s like, “You don’t need surgery.” But he’s saying that because someone else is telling him, “Hey, we don’t have the money to give anybody surgery.”
[The injuries] have already been determined to be service-connected. Now I’m just waiting on the PEB to determine whether I’m fit or unfit for continued service. I’m obviously unfit. The way it works is, the Army’s going to give me a rating and the VA’s going to give me a rating. If the Army gives me a lump sum, then I’m going to have to pay that back through my VA rating. So instead of getting the disability from the VA, it’s going to go to pay the Army back that lump sum—even if I choose to take it. Then they always have to take care of my back injuries since it’s service-connected.
Editor’s Note: In wrapping up the interview, Mitchell shared what he thought it would take to get soldiers the care they deserve and win the right to heal.
I think you have to change the culture. You’d have to make examples of non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers alike. I hate to say it, but you’d have to relieve several commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers, so that the rest of the Army would get the picture: you’re not going to be mean to your soldier, you’re not going to criticize him, you’re going to let him go to sick call. Because right now, if you want to go to sick call, you go stand there and the first sergeant tells you, “You don’t need to fucking go on sick call.”
It happens in our unit. My buddy goes on sick call and later on that day, he’s like, “Man, I had to hear the first sergeant chew me out and just talk crap,” and disrespect him. Relieve that guy. Take his job away from him. The Army will take away a specialist or a private’s job, so why not do that to a commissioned officer?
As long as the Army is lenient on its leadership, then the leadership will continue to abuse their authority. Once the Army starts cracking down on the leadership the way they crack down on the Joe’s, that’s when you’ll see a change. Because then, some guy who’s put 15 years in is going to refrain from saying what he wants to say.
Until you start to see officers losing their pay, their job, their benefits—non-commissioned officers—until that happens, the abuse will continue.
…I think the biggest thing you can do for a soldier is tell him to be confident, because if you’re confident and you’re not afraid of your chain of command, then they’ll sit down and listen to you because they have to. At the end of the day, a soldier needs to stand up for themselves. In a respectful manner say, “Sir, you know, you don’t need to say this to me. You’re not authorized to insult me, sir.” It takes a lot to stand up to your command. But if a soldier really wants to get what he needs, he’s going to have to be an advocate for himself.