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Wounds Of War Must Be Considered For Veterans Discharged For Misconduct

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Pentagon requires that the wounds of war, including PTSD, be taken into account for veterans discharged for misconduct. But KPBS military reporter Steve Walsh has the story of one Marine who's fighting to stay in the corps. And a warning - this story talks about both violence and self-harm.

COOPER WILLIAMS: My name is Cooper Williams. I'm from Mississippi, originally. I'm an active-duty Marine, chief warrant officer. I've been in the Marine Corps for 17 1/2 years now.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Williams may not be a Marine for much longer. He had a couple of tours in Iraq in the mid-2000s, followed by a tour in Afghanistan. He remembers being in a convoy when a roadside bomb exploded.

WILLIAMS: The whole front right side of the charter bus was blown off. I was the first one there. And...

WALSH: Williams stares into space for a moment.

WILLIAMS: You know, at the time, it was like mayhem - people screaming, people crying.

WALSH: It was one of several incidents that left him with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Williams says he ignored his problems for years as he pursued a career in military intelligence. His wife Andrea watched him change.

ANDREA: More reclusive, started being depressed, not being able to sleep - all those things. And again, life just went on.

WALSH: Violence in his personal life compounded problems that started on the battlefield. His parents died in a murder-suicide.

WILLIAMS: I'll never forget that day. It was December 23. It was two days prior to Christmas.

WALSH: It was 2016. His parents were getting a divorce when his father killed his mother, then himself, back in their hometown in Mississippi. His personal life was collapsing, but Williams' career as a Marine was at its height. He was made a warrant officer in the coveted military intelligence field. But he was falling apart.

WILLIAMS: The panic attacks became much more severe, like just the impact physiologically, physically, mentally.

WALSH: Williams started drinking heavily. In 2019, he applied for a transfer to a Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. He completed treatment for PTSD and alcoholism. It's also where he received two DUIs in less than a month. He says it was drinking combined with a change in medication.

WILLIAMS: I remember waking up and then - but what I was doing was just blacking out and then just doing things that were uncharacteristic to me.

WALSH: The DUIs are grounds for kicking Williams out of the corps. His 17-plus-year career is on the line. The Marines have started the process. That likely means a loss of pension, health care and GI Bill benefits.

WILLIAMS: This is the rest of my life. I have five children. I've been in the Marine Corps almost 18 years now. I'm retirement eligible. I was going to retire in October. And you're just going to take everything from me?

WALSH: Thousands of troops with PTSD have been discharged for misconduct. Starting in 2014, the Pentagon began requiring services to consider how much the wounds of war played a role in the troops' behavior. That reevaluation helps veterans trying to upgrade their discharges. That consideration doesn't always extend to active-duty troops.

Esther Leibfarth (ph) is an attorney with the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C. She says the rules need to change so the military looks more seriously at the wounds of war before kicking out a service member in the first place.

ESTHER LEIBFARTH: We need to stop the problem before it occurs. It's not enough to do it post-discharge. It's too late. The damage has already been done.

WALSH: Meanwhile, Cooper Williams is appealing to the Marine Corps to at least give him an in-person hearing. At the moment, he can only wait.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKOB'S "SAFETY IN NUMBERS")

FADEL: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKOB'S "SAFETY IN NUMBERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.