THE BLOG
12/29/2014 09:38 am ET | Updated Feb 28, 2015

Investigative Reporter Alissa Figueroa Exposes Stunning Flaws in Veterans' Benefits System

Reporter Alissa Figueroa had not been producing puff pieces. Her reports for Fusion (an ABC News/Univision joint venture) had spotlighted California communities with contaminated water and examined holes in America's gun regulations. But the military, that was someone else's beat — until last November, when a veteran contacted her and described being raped while serving in the Army. He asked her to investigate. Figueroa agreed.

The data was disturbing: Since 2006, more than 96,000 service members had been sexually assaulted during their service, according to a Pentagon report. While the majority of those victims were men, only a small fraction of male victims reported being assaulted. Even more disturbing was the unexpected backlash those soldiers faced when they did report the attacks. "I found example after example of men in the Army who were perfectly healthy, many of them medal-winning soldiers. Then, after being raped and reporting their trauma, they were quickly discharged with 'personality disorder,'" said Figueroa.

Soldiers discharged with personality disorder, a pre-existing condition, are denied a lifetime of disability and medical benefits reserved for soldiers who are traumatized during service.

Figueroa dug deeper and found that these personality disorder discharges had become an epidemic. Since 2001, the Pentagon had discharged more than 31,000 soldiers with personality disorder, at a savings to the military of over $17.2 billion in disability and medical benefits. Soon Figueroa was watching a video of a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on personality disorder, held in 2010 after The Nation exposed the Pentagon's fraudulent use of those discharges. Sitting before an enraged committee, Pentagon spokesman Lernes J. Hebert struck a conciliatory note, acknowledging that tens of thousands of wounded and traumatized soldiers may have been wrongly discharged and denied benefits. But their problems were only temporary, said Hebert, because those soldiers had the option to appeal their discharges to the Board for Correction of Military Records.

The Pentagon's explanation effectively assuaged the Congressional committee, which quickly forgot about personality disorder and moved on to other concerns. But Figueroa wasn't so easily appeased. The investigative reporter listened to Herbert's explanation and was soon rankled by a follow-up question no congressman and no journalist had ever asked: What happened to those traumatized soldiers who did appeal their cases to this Board? How many of those soldiers got their discharges corrected and their benefits properly installed?

After a year of investigation, she uncovered the answer: virtually none. Figueroa looked at over 3,000 appeals cases, stretching through the last decade. Not a single one was overturned. Wounded soldiers often spend years collecting hundreds of pages of medical documents to prove that their wounds came from war. Figueroa found that the Corrections Board doesn't even read those soldiers' submissions. In fact, the board spent an average of three minutes and 45 seconds before rejecting each case.

Figueroa's four-part series has ripped the cover off a corrupt branch of the veterans' benefits system, transforming the national conversation about why so many of our soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are being denied disability benefits and medical care. The investigation has also transformed Figueroa into one of the nation's most important voices on veterans' issues.

Figueroa spoke with me about her series, her findings, and the possibility for real change.

                                                                                

Figueroa: The first thing I noticed is that most soldiers and most veterans don't even know that this appeals board exists. But as far as military status is concerned, the Board is like the Supreme Court. They have the power to change anything. For medical discharges, they're the only one that can make a change.

Kors: The members of this appeals board, who are they?

Figueroa: That's part of the problem: the Pentagon doesn't release that information. It's a system cast in shadow, unlike anything else in the American justice system, where you can see the jury, where you know the judge's name. The board members' identities are kept hidden, both from the public and from the soldiers whose cases they're deciding.

Kors: You located and spoke with a former board member.

Figueroa: I did. He was very proud of the work he had done with the board. The military will tell you, they're working hard too. But if you look at the board's schedule, they're only in session twice a week, for five hours at a time. That's a 10-hour work week. And it's not even the same people at each session. The board, it turns out, is a three-member panel, with 115 Pentagon employees rotating in and out, volunteering for the job once a month.

Kors: Which leaves them very little time for each case.

Figueroa: Exactly. For most veterans, it takes about a year for the board to produce a decision. Very few of those veterans realize that the less than four minutes of that year was spent deciding their case.

Kors: In your series, you look at the case of Sergeant Chuck Luther, who was wounded by mortar fire in Iraq, then discharged with a pre-existing personality disorder. Luther took almost a year to produce his appeals submission to the Board, with 487 pages of proof that he was wounded in war. Your reporting includes the graphic of a hand, turning pages at lightning speed, showing how quickly board members would have to read Luther's appeal before they rejected his case in their average time, three minutes and 45 seconds.

Figueroa: Yes, the hundreds of pages of these soldiers' appeals, there's no way the Board is actually reading them in those three minutes and 45 seconds. What they are doing is skimming the Army analyst's three-page summaries of soldiers' appeals, then stamping their approval on top of the analyst's summaries. I heard that over and over in my investigation: The board members are not the real decision makers. They're there to uphold the Army analyst's decisions.

Kors: But the Army analysts, their role in this process is to represent the Army's point of view.

Figueroa: A lot of the lawyers I spoke with, who have filed appeals on behalf of soldiers, that's what they say. They feel like the analysts are there to uphold the Army's point of view, like a trial where the only evidence the jury is presented with is the prosecution's opening statement. And that's it — that's the review, without ever having a witness or a hearing or even testimony from the wounded soldier. The Army says that the Board is allowed to call for witnesses, including requesting testimony from the veteran himself. But that fact is so unknown, not even the board member I spoke to had heard that. He said that in his 10 years on the Board, not once did a veteran or a witness come before his Board. It was always just the analysts' summaries.

Kors: You read a lot of Army analyst summaries.

Figueroa: [Figueroa laughs.] Yes. Over 3,000 of them. They were stunning. They were filled with derogatory language, denigrating the injured soldiers who were appealing their cases. And so many of the decisions were based on factual errors, crazy mistakes that led to these bizarre conclusions. Other decisions had such mangled logic, they blew my mind. Take Sgt. Luther's case. In addition to his physical injuries, he also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Army said that Luther didn't have valid evidence of PTSD because he was not diagnosed with PTSD before his discharge.

Kors: But he was. I reported on Luther's case and interviewed his psychiatrist on camera, for broadcast on PBS.

Figueroa: I know. The Army analysts make mistakes like that all the time. The analyst in his case also said that, examining Luther's first eight years in uniform, there was "evidence" that Luther had a pre-existing personality disorder because, even though he won 22 honors for his service, when his first service contract was up, he stepped away from the military to perform a civilian job for a few years before reenlisting. According to the Army analyst, that was a sign that Luther wasn't "excelling" in the Army, which was a sign that he was suffering from pre-existing personality disorder.

Kors: Wow.

Figueroa: These absurdities become even more acute when you meet these soldiers, hear their stories, and recognize the crucial evidence being left out of these analyst summaries. Massive holes, like not even mentioning the traumatic event that the soldier endured. I also saw rape cases, over and over again, with the analyst essentially saying: "Okay, you probably don't have personality disorder. And you probably do have PTSD from being raped during your service. But a military doctor didn't examine you immediately after you reported the rape, so there's no way to confirm the trauma. So we'll just leave the personality disorder diagnosis as is." They'll admit the rape, admit the wrongful discharge, then blame the soldier for the military's failure to treat him, and refuse to fix the discharge. Some of the mangled logic in these cases, it just made my head hurt. It was as if, time after time, they were determined to find a way to say "No."

Kors: You spoke with a lot of the soldiers.

Figueroa: I did. Their families too. That's what kept me going. And what made it so hard. The way the board's decisions are written, it's like they're dealing with soulless pieces of paper. But these are real people. And with each decision, their lives are at stakes. When you talk to the soldiers and their families, you can hear the pain and anger in their voices. These soldiers are putting their hearts on the line, bravely writing detailed accounts of the injuries they experienced and the traumas they suffered, with hundreds of pages of medical evidence to verify their injuries. And what they get back a year later is a few sentences that say "No."

Kors: In your reporting, you detail the case of a colonel who was denied a promotion because of misconduct that never actually occurred. The Board acknowledged that no misconduct had occurred but refused to overturn that case because it said that the mere accusation of misconduct had created "the appearance of impropriety."

Figueroa: Right. He was accused of misconduct, but his lawyer showed conclusively that he hadn't committed misconduct. The Board agreed but said that the fact that no misconduct had occurred didn't change the appearance of impropriety. They didn't give any reason as to why there was an appearance of impropriety. As a result, he lost the opportunity to be promoted to brigadier general, one of the most senior ranks in the Armed Forces. You look at that case and you think, "Is this for real?" For the soldiers, it's completely exasperating. They're seeking relief from the same organization that wronged them. And when they get rebuffed, they feel like there's no place to go.

Kors: The Army analyst's power is pretty much unchecked, isn't it? That's what shocked me most about your reporting. For an analyst to shoot down a case, he can wait for the appeals board to rubber-stamp his rejection. Or he can skip that step and reject a soldier's case before it even gets its three-minute, 45-second review.

Figueroa: That's true. And that happens a lot, in almost half of the appeals cases. Every year the Board receives about 17,000 appeals. The Board sees 9,000 of those appeals. The other 8,000 are rejected by the Army analyst before they even reach the Board's hands. The analyst can simply say, "This appeal doesn't deserve to reach the Board." That has no equivalent in the American justice system either. Imagine a person who is being sued in court telling the judge, "Your Honor, this case isn't worth your time. So I'm not even going to let you look at it." It's astonishing when you realize that in this supreme court of veterans' benefits, the last place soldiers can go for justice, this is how things work. For soldiers who have been wronged, who find the courage to speak up and appeal their case, this is the justice they get.

Kors: What do you hope comes of your reporting? Are there changes you'd like to see?

Figueroa: There are several obvious changes that could be made. First, veterans need to know that this appeals board exists and that they have the right to testify before it and present witnesses. Second, the Board's 10-hour work week could be expanded to a standard 40-hour work week. The board members should also be allowed to take the veterans' cases home and review them; right now that's not permitted. If everyone at the table has already read the cases, then the board's discussion of each appeal can be meaningful. The Army could also make serving on the appeals board a full-time position, rather than volunteer service for a rotating cast of 150 contributors. Even the analysts are radically understaffed. Right now the Army has about 35 analysts evaluating 17,000 appeals a year. We know that the Board isn't reading the veterans' cases. And with so few analysts processing so many cases, I wouldn't bet on the analysts actually having read the veterans' cases either, which could explain some of the more glaring omissions in their summaries.

Kors: Makes sense to me. Are you hopeful that, with the release of your investigation, those changes will come to fruition?

Figueroa: [Figueroa laughs.] To be honest, I've been more nervous than hopeful about releasing my investigation. I don't want veterans who were wrongfully discharged to see my reporting and say, "Well, this proves it: the appeals system's broken. It's useless. So I'm not even going to file an appeal."

Kors: That's not the take-away message here.

Figueroa: Absolutely not. My hope is that someone in Congress or the Pentagon sees my reporting and says, "Hey, we can make some changes here."

Some responses in this post have been edited for clarity after publication.

Follow Joshua Kors on Facebook at www.facebook.com/joshua.kors

Follow Joshua Kors on Twitter at www.twitter.com/joshuakors