The Madigan Army Medical Center at the base is under a wide-ranging investigation following allegations that a special psychiatric team altered staff clinicians’ diagnoses for hundreds of soldiers from PTSD to lesser conditions.
Fourteen soldiers who complained early this year that their PTSD diagnoses were unfairly changed were flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington for reevaluation. Last month, six of them had their PTSD diagnoses reinstated.
Soon after the reevaluations, Juliana Ellis-Billingsley, a leader of the forensic psychiatry unit that is accused, resigned.
“I find that I can no longer work in a system that requires me to sacrifice my professional and moral principles to political expediency,” Ellis-Billingsley wrote in her Feb. 23 resignation letter.
The Army’s preliminary review last month found that more than 280 additional soldiers evaluated at Madigan since 2007 had their diagnoses altered to less serious conditions, often adjustment disorders that receive fewer disability benefits.
Col. Dallas Homas, who heads the center, and William Keppler, a mental health chief at the hospital, were placed on administrative leave while the investigation continues.
The most dramatic evidence in the case, according to a congressional source who was briefed on it, is a PowerPoint presentation that Keppler offered to psychiatric and medical staff members. It emphasized that each soldier who receives a PTSD diagnosis costs the military $1.5 million over his or her lifetime in health benefits and pension payments.
Keppler referred calls about the case to military spokesmen, who referred questions to the Army surgeon general. Ellis-Billingsley did not respond to calls to her home seeking comment.
Nationwide, traumatic brain injuries among service members have been steadily rising each year since 2000, with 11,000 confirmed cases reported that year and 30,000 reported in 2011, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.
The Army surgeon general said that traumatic brain injury has been diagnosed in 135,000 soldiers from 2000 through 2011. But three-fourths of those injuries were classified as mild, and few troops suffer long-term symptoms.
“The overwhelming majority of military personnel who sustain a concussion/mild traumatic brain injury fully recover with proper rest and education with no residual symptoms,” surgeon general spokeswoman Maria Tolleson said in a statement. “Patients requiring ongoing treatment are not deployed to a combat zone or if in a combat zone, they are medically evacuated for further care.”
Tolleson said “a relatively small proportion of patients” suffer from symptoms that last more than six months after their concussion.
Ashley Hagemann, a Fort Lewis widow, said something is horribly wrong with the way the base handles traumatized soldiers who are shipped out for tour after tour without counseling for the deaths they have witnessed and the stress they have endured.
Hagemann’s husband had been with a unit stationed at Fort Lewis and committed suicide last year just before his eighth tour, which was to be to Libya, she said. Hagemann said her husband told her that God would never forgive him for what he had seen and done as a soldier.
Hagemann said she had a queasy feeling that the alleged gunman in the killings in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province was from her husband’s base.
“I already knew he had to be from Fort Lewis and had to have some sort of trauma,” she said. “I was angry knowing the military would deploy him, to not give him help he obviously needed.”
Leonnig reported from Washington. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.