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Once Branded a Coward, He Now Fights for PTSD Victims

They call him the angry guy now. Even his friends. And at this moment, on a snowy evening when he should be home, putting his son to bed, Andrew Pogany is, in fact, ticked off.

He sits with a soldier in a law office. The man has brought with him a pile of medical files, and another desperate story: Sent off to war to fight for his country. Diagnosed, now, with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet the Army, the soldier tells Pogany, is drawing up papers to discharge him in a way that could mean no medical benefits. And they want him out in three weeks.

The soldier confides he thinks about killing himself. All the time, he says.

Pogany makes sure he has his cell number.

He tells the soldier to call any time, day or night. He copies the medical records, and recommends a book by a Vietnam veteran turned Zen monk. The man once helped Pogany through his own tough times. Maybe, until Pogany can make something happen, the monk's words will help this guy hang on.

Two hours behind closed doors, then a handshake and the soldier leaves. Pogany seethes.

"Disgusting," he fumes. "This is so disgusting."

Yes, Andrew Pogany is angry again. But he shrugs off such labels. Better to be called angry, after all, than to be branded a coward by the very military he signed up to serve, as the Army did to him back in 2003, when the Iraq war was just under way.

When the military tried to prosecute him, anger motivated Pogany to fight. When he began thinking about taking his own life, anger helped quiet the despair and kept him from getting a gun. When service members like this one started coming to him for help, anger drove him to fight on, for them.

He likes to say that the "anger monkey" saved him. He'll need that anger to have a shot at saving this soldier, too.

___

Nov. 6, 2003. Pogany sat in his old house in Colorado Springs, watching CNN. Suddenly his own face appeared on the screen alongside that of Jessica Lynch, as Paula Zahn asked the country a question:

"So what makes a hero a hero, and a coward a coward?"

Lynch, the former Army supply clerk rescued after being captured by Iraqi forces, was, of course, the hero in this scenario.

Pogany was the man with the brand: the coward.

We were just eight months into the war in Iraq. The fight in Afghanistan was barely on the radar. Multiple deployments were still rare. The now all-too-common stories of combat stress, soldiers committing suicide, guys coming home and getting into trouble with the law, the military grappling with how to deal with it all, weren't yet all over the news.

Pogany, the coward, was.

He deployed to Iraq in September 2003, a 32-year-old staff sergeant trained in intelligence and interrogation. Based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, he volunteered to go to war with a team of Green Berets when another soldier couldn't.

Then, only a few days in-country, Pogany saw the shredded body of a gunned-down Iraqi. He had what he thought was a panic attack — vomiting, hallucinations so horrible his comrades looked like zombies. He went to his command, told them something was wrong. He says he got the "man up" response.

A psychologist examined him, concluded he'd had a normal combat stress reaction and recommended some rest, then back to duty. Pogany's commanders instead shipped him back to Fort Carson, and a week later came the charge: "cowardly conduct as a result of fear," a crime punishable by death under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The last such conviction in the Army occurred during the Vietnam War.

Pogany wasn't convicted. The day that Paula Zahn raised the question about heroes and cowards, a military court dismissed the cowardice charge. The Army tried for dereliction of duty, instead, but then dropped that charge and offered Pogany a nonjudicial punishment, called an Article 15.

The fight went on, until Pogany and his attorney discovered what they believed was the cause of his problem: a reaction to the anti-malaria drug Lariam, which has side effects that may include paranoia and hallucinations. The Army eventually dropped all charges, finding Pogany had "a medical problem that requires care and treatment."

In April 2005, Pogany was medically retired from the Army, with full benefits.

He tells the story now, in 2010, in an almost bored voice. He's tired of telling it. That's obvious. Don't people know it by now?

When he was trying to piece a life back together, wasn't his application for a police job rejected because his "background" wasn't suitable for employment? He took "background" to mean: "where they falsely accused me of being a coward."

Didn't his fiancee's relatives call him "the famous guy" when they met at a Christmas party years ago? Famous for what? That coward thing? God, he hoped not.

The story just is what it is. He recounts it sitting in the office of his home near downtown Denver, a cozy bungalow filled with Buddha statues and Hindu prayer flags and anything that might help bring him peace. His case files are packed away in a box in the back of the house, and he has no desire to dig them out.

Borrowing from a Buddhist tenet, Pogany says he longer attaches to, or detaches from, his story. He's even somewhat thankful for it because it made him who he is today — not the facts of the case, not even the brand that may forever be attached to his name. But all the stuff that came with those things.

How he was treated, when the Army came to his house and confiscated his gun and then assigned him to sweep parking lots, pick up cigarette butts, and clean toilets. How he survived by working side-by-side with his lawyer to research military regulations, learn the medical retirement process inside and out, and study the bible of psychiatry, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," which still sits within arm's reach of his desk at home.

How he had to fight to clear his name even while trying to figure out what was wrong with him physically and mentally. There were tests at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., treatment for Lariam toxicity at a Naval hospital in San Diego and, eventually, sessions with a therapist, yoga classes, studies in Buddhism.

"Life in itself became combat for me," he says. "It was constantly day-to-day survival, strategizing on how I will take on the next day. I came up with battle plans for myself. I did exactly what they train us to do: Assess the enemy situation ... and figure out how I can outmaneuver" these guys.

He also learned what it meant to feel true despair, to sit alone in his bedroom, door locked, getting comfortable with the idea of shooting himself just to make it all end. And he discovered how vital it was to have someone to turn to in those times.

His lawyer, Richard Travis, remembers the calls on evenings and weekends. The tears. The endless questions of, "Why are they doing this to me?"

"He was just treated so poorly. It's kind of like when you've got the nice loyal dog and you start kicking him around and the dog looks at you like, `What are you doing? What did I do to deserve this?'"

Eventually, that dog might bite.

Was there ever some deliberate pledge to not let it happen to anyone else? Not exactly. Pogany needed work, and his dreams of turning his Army career into something long term with the Central Intelligence Agency or another government entity were over.

Steve Robinson, a veterans' advocate and the former executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, offered Pogany a job in Washington. After a few months, when Pogany decided to move back to Colorado, Robinson asked him to work as an advocate on behalf of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Job description: Find people who need help. And help them.

"I knew that a guy like that, who had been through the crucible of having the full weight of the Department of Defense coming down on you, national television exposure saying you were a coward on the battlefield ... I knew a guy that survived that could help me help other soldiers," Robinson says.

"There's something very empowering about helping yourself and then turning around and using that energy to help other people. That," says Robinson, "is the story of Andrew."

___

The soldier isn't five minutes out of the law office when Pogany begins formulating a battle plan.

First step: an e-mail to the top commander at Fort Carson. "`Request emergency meeting with you because your commanders ... are actively engaged in causing suicides.' Or something like that. See how he responds," Pogany says.

"I'm gonna send this e-mail. And I'm going to request that certain people attend that meeting. The brigade commander. The battalion commander."

He's in mission mode again. It began the moment he spoke with the soldier by phone a few days earlier. A counselor in Colorado Springs apparently gave the man Pogany's name.

"The coward" has become the one to call if a service member may be getting the shaft.

By now, Pogany can't even count how many cases he's worked or soldiers he's met. Hundreds, he estimates. A few guys he advised while going through his own medical retirement started referring people to him. And the calls and e-mails kept coming.

There were mothers begging for help for sons just back from war, unable to cope and in trouble, first with the law and then with the Army. Wives wondering what's wrong with their husbands, and not sure how to get military commanders to listen.

People like Teresa Mischke, who says her husband, Darren, came back from his second deployment to Iraq in 2006 a changed man. He complained of head pain. His memory was horrible. And he was violent.

In March 2007, Darren was arrested on a domestic violence charge after jumping on top of Teresa's car as she tried to leave their house. He immediately pleaded guilty, meaning he also faced being discharged from the Army. Teresa says she went to Darren's commanders, believing her husband needed medical care, not jail and a discharge.

Then she got Pogany's number from a female soldier whom he had helped. He began intervening on base, calling Darren's commanders, those in charge at the base hospital.

"He would take it way up the chain. He would go to the general. He would downright say, `Hey, you cannot do this. If you do this, we'll do a, b, c,'" Teresa recalls.

Darren received several medical exams, after which Teresa finally had an explanation for her husband's behavior: Medical records show he was diagnosed with PTSD, but also a brain injury from an auto accident and a mortar attack while in Iraq.

Travis, Pogany's old lawyer, took on the domestic abuse case and got the guilty plea thrown out. The charge was eventually dismissed.

Darren remains in the Army, assigned now to Fort Carson's Warrior Transition Battalion, which aims to rehabilitate wounded soldiers. Instead of a discharge without benefits, he is going through the medical retirement process as he continues both cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling.

Teresa's heard others criticize Pogany for "throwing rocks at Fort Carson." She says: "If somebody didn't throw rocks, where would these guys be? What if there weren't people like Andrew?"

Joann Taylor has never even met Pogany but credits him with saving her son's life. Justin Taylor was back from his third deployment and facing a fourth when he was arrested for drunken driving in the fall of 2007 in Colorado Springs. "I'm not doing so good," he told his mom when he called her the next day in Spring, Texas.

Taylor says his commanders at Fort Carson told him he just had a drinking problem, and deployment was still inevitable. He and his wife were separated at the time. He'd never before been arrested, and believed he'd let his family down — especially his son, Tristen.

"I started feeling suicidal," he says. "I really thought that I was going to die in Iraq. I felt like I made it through three times. If I went back for a fourth, I wasn't going to come back to my son."

His sister found Pogany's name on the Internet, and Pogany went to work doing what he does: He wrote letters, demanded meetings and eventually secured a medical hold for Taylor, who was transferred into Warrior Transition.

"He knew the right people to go to, whereas I don't know any of the military terminology or medical people," Joann Taylor says. "Without Andrew, I would've fought this battle alone, and I don't know how far I would've gotten."

"As soldiers, you have the chain of command. You have to watch what you say. If you're not tactful ... they're going to take it out on you," says Taylor, who was medically retired last May and is back in Texas. He and his wife reunited and their second child, a daughter named Annabella, was born this month.

"Andrew, he can play the mean cop all he wants. He pissed a lot of people off but was doing the right thing. He was the spokesman for soldiers who were scared to say anything."

It's true that Pogany's style hasn't won him many fans at his old Army base, where he has done most of his advocacy work — first with Robinson's organization, then as an investigator with Veterans for America and the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which provides legal aid to soldiers and veterans.

Col. George Brandt, the senior behavioral health officer at the base hospital at Fort Carson, questioned whether Pogany goes too far — to the point of exaggerating the facts of a case — to get action.

"I respect Andy. He has brought things to my attention where we've made a difference," Brandt said. "My issue with Mr. Pogany is a systematic misrepresentation of facts. He needs to not sacrifice his integrity to make points."

Brandt said he couldn't cite specifics or comment on individual cases, because of base policies.

"Every service member has a right to have advocates involved to some degree in their interaction with the health care system. In the complex cases where there is a mixture of (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD, defining how much each disorder affects the interaction is very difficult; we do the best we can for each soldier," Brandt said.

Pogany is, undoubtedly, persistent. He'll e-mail medical studies and case synopses not only to top commanders at Carson, but to Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army. He'll shop soldiers' stories to the media, if working the chain of command proves fruitless.

When a soldier recorded a Fort Carson psychologist describing pressure to misdiagnose patients, which could result in lower disability ratings and fewer benefits, the soldier's wife took the recording to Pogany. He took it to an Army commander, and it eventually found its way to top commanders at the Pentagon (and also to the online magazine Salon.com, which wrote extensively about the case. An Army probe found no systematic wrongdoing.).

"I've heard people go, `Oh that goddamn Pogany,'" says Robert Alvarez, a Colorado Springs therapist who counsels soldiers and has worked dozens of cases with Pogany. He defends Pogany's work ethic, saying they've both walked away from cases after finding soldiers were bending the truth.

If he's politically incorrect or irate, even, it's because of the stakes, Alvarez says.

"We're dealing with life or death matters with a lot of these cases. ... We're talking about people who are going to have a bad life, if not end their lives. Let me tell you: That guy cares about soldiers. Bottom line."

When he plays golf over at Fort Carson, Travis still hears complaints that his former client is a pain in the rear. His response: "You guys made him."

Maybe part of his motivation is "sticking it to the man," says Travis. "Or it's he doesn't want someone else to go through what he went through."

Whatever the reason why, Pogany is what the Army taught him to be, first as his employer and then as his adversary.

"A determined animal," says Travis.

___

On Pogany's night stand at home sits a carving given to him by the mother of a soldier he once helped. It's a Hindu deity with the head of an elephant and the body of a human. It is called Ganesha, "Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles."

The Mischkes. The Taylors. They are success stories. And there've been others, notably a court ruling this year that allows thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets to join a class-action lawsuit alleging the military denied appropriate benefits to those suffering from PTSD. Pogany helped push for the case, brought by the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

He's proud of that, and that his work along with that of other advocates has helped bring about improvements in the medical assessments soldiers receive and more attention to, and programs to address, PTSD and problems related to combat stress.

But there have also been too many tragedies: Google alerts whenever another soldier's suicide hits the news. Memorial services he's attended. The suicide of a soldier he served with, Ken Lehman, whom he promised to help when he ran into him one day at Fort Carson. The next week, Pogany learned he was dead.

The stories become too much after a while. His blood boils because of them, because seven years after his own fight with the military brought so many issues to light, other problems remain — and others soldiers still struggle.

It's never been about payback, he says, but rather the very thing the military preaches: Duty.

"Those of us who have come home and have survived this war and have an opportunity to live a normal life, we have an obligation to help those who come home and struggle. We must help them, because if we don't, if we kind of just go with the status quo and label them mentally ill and shove them off into some fringe group of society ... not only are we breaking a sacred promise we've made to them, we're also dishonoring the memory of those who have not come home," Pogany says.

"That's it. That's really it. It's really that simple."

But Pogany wants to step back some now, and focus on life and his fiancee and his baby, a smiling blue-eyed boy named Charlie, whose photo shares space on an iPhone that holds soldiers' names and numbers and notes.

Last November, Pogany was hired as director of military outreach and education for the organization Give an Hour, which enlists volunteers to provide counseling and treatment to soldiers returning from war. His day job consists of working to recruit more providers into the network and doing what he can to match soldiers and families with therapists.

The advocacy work is all on the side.

With his latest case, Pogany got that meeting with the base commander, and this soldier just might become a success story, too. At least Pogany hopes so. Fort Carson doctors reviewed the soldier's case, and he's in the process of being transferred into the Warrior Transition Battalion for help and, most likely, a medical retirement.

Pogany is training another ex-military man to take on his advocacy work. He would tell you he's done with all of that now.

And yet every time he says so, another sad story draws him back in. And then he finds himself back in Colorado Springs, reviewing medical files, missing Charlie's bedtime and hoping another soldier can hang on, the way he somehow managed to hang on. By fighting.