Critics: Fort Carson Policy Targeted Troubled, Wounded GIs
Army Cpl. Joshua Smith saw the orange glow against the South Carolina night sky long before he reached his sister’s apartment complex. The fire in the back buildings was intense. People stood in shock, watching the blaze.
Smith leapt from his rental car and vaulted a five-foot brick wall, yelling at onlookers to call for help.
He grabbed an exercise weight someone had left in the yard, threw it through a sliding glass door and burst into the burning building.
He shepherded a mother and her 16-month-old daughter to safety, then turned his attention to the other apartments, kicking down doors, running room to room, making sure no one else was trapped.
By the time he emerged, firefighters had arrived. The local TV news hailed the 22-year-old infantryman — home on leave after a tour in Iraq before transferring to Fort Carson, Colo. — whose quick action saved lives.
“It was easy,” Smith said later. “Nobody was shooting at me.”
Sixteen months later, in November 2010, the acting commander at Fort Carson, Brig. Gen. James H. Doty, pinned the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for noncombat heroism, to Smith’s chest. It was the young Soldier’s second valor medal in three years in the military, after an Army Commendation Medal with valor device that he’d been awarded for his combat service.
For all his heroics, however, Smith’s life was falling apart.
He was headed for a medical discharge he didn’t really want, due to knee and back injuries. He was in a disastrous marriage, drinking too much, trying to hide the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Fort Carson doctors checked him into a mental health facility for several days in January. Then, just three months after the Soldier’s Medal ceremony, Smith came up positive for cocaine use in a random drug test.
The usual course of action in the Army is to punish Soldiers who test positive for drugs locally and to begin a process that can — but doesn’t always — lead to an administrative discharge from the military. At Fort Carson, military lawyers had devised a different plan to quickly get rid of wounded Soldiers who got in trouble.
Smith’s commanders in the rear detachment of the 2-8 Infantry Regiment, who hadn’t served with him in Iraq, took steps to court-martial him. The criminal charge they levied against him, use of a controlled substance, carried the possibility of jail time, a punitive discharge and a civilian felony record.
Smith and his defense lawyers were shocked. Then the prosecutors offered him a quick way out: If he would request an immediate discharge under a legal procedure known as a Chapter 10 — without his medical review, military medical care and potential medical retirement pay or disability severance pay — they would recommend that Doty approve it.
The prosecutors even offered to recommend that Smith receive an honorable discharge (albeit one marked on his paperwork as “in lieu of court-martial”), an almost unheard-of outcome. Chapter 10 discharges are almost always characterized as “other-than-honorable.”
With his lawyers’ encouragement, Smith took the deal. On May 31, the same general who had commended Smith at the ceremony ended his career over a single act of misconduct.
Three days later, Smith was a civilian — nearly penniless, suffering and alone. He’s moved three times in the five months since then, mostly staying with family and friends.
“I’ve been sleeping on couches since I got out,” Smith said in an interview. “Technically, I’m homeless.”