(WASHINGTON) — Twenty years after the start of the Iraq War, a personal battle continues for former U.S. Army Sgt. Ben Hayhurst.
He’s claimed he developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing heavy combat.
But nearly 18 years ago, he was separated from the military with what instead was called a “personality disorder.”
Now, he is renewing his fight to have the Army recognize what he said is his true condition.
Hayhurst’s story began in 2004 when he and his unit were part of the siege of Sadr City, now infamously known as “Black Sunday.” His experience was documented in the National Geographic miniseries, The Long Road Home, based on a book written by ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz.
In April 2004, Hayhurst and 18 other soldiers were in a convoy of four Humvees when they were hit by a large-scale ambush.
“I think a lot of us believed we weren’t going to get out of there,” he said.
Shot twice in the shoulder, Hayhurst was evacuated to the U.S. for medical treatment.
But he was eager to rejoin his comrades in the fight, and within months, he was back with his platoon in Iraq. Yet, while his shoulder had largely healed, he said his less visible wounds began to reveal themselves when he was again ambushed by enemy forces.
“When we got hit again, I started having panic attacks, pretty heavy ones. And after a couple of weeks of fighting, I ended up having one while we were out. That kind of shut me down, and they they pulled me out,” he said.
Hayhurst was sent to a combat stress center in Baghdad.
“I was supposed to be assessed for PTSD there, but unfortunately, the doctor who did those assessments was on leave. And so, I never got a sense. But they basically told me, ‘Yeah, you’ve got PTSD,'” he said.
After he and his unit had finished their deployment and returned to the U.S., Hayhurst said he was again sent to receive a mental evaluation.
“The lady who did it told me, ‘You’ve got PTSD. It’s fairly severe,'” he said.
He said he was offered two choices: be assigned another job in the Army or separate from the service. Not interested in taking a new position, he said, he chose to leave. But he said he didn’t realize everything that decision would entail.
“At the time I was also very heavily medicated, I wasn’t sleeping, I was having panic attacks all the time,” he said.
When he received his discharge paperwork, he said he was surprised to see no mention of PTSD.
“It said ‘personality disorder.’ And because it was a ‘preexisting condition,’ they were going to take my bonus back, my re-enlistment bonus,” he said.
The “personality disorder” designation, he said, would also disqualify him from some benefits.
“I basically got out with a paycheck,” he said.
“Despite the overwhelming evidence that Sgt. Hayhurst suffered from combat induced PTSD meriting his medical retirement, the Army instead mis-classified his PTSD as a personality disorder, resulting in his administrative separation,” said a legal complaint filed on behalf of Hayhurst in the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., in November.
When ABC News asked the Army about Hayhurst’s claims, a spokesperson said the service does not publicly address ongoing cases.
“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on litigation involving the Army,” Army spokeswoman Madison Bonzo said.
With his record claiming he had a “personality disorder” — described as a “deeply ingrained maladaptive pattern of behavior of long duration” — his ability to find relief through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was slowed, according to Hayhurst.
“Since I was discharged for a personality disorder, it took a while to get the VA to recognize it was PTSD and not a preexisting condition. So, I fought for several years through the VA to finally get them to recognize that I was dealing with PTSD and not a preexisting condition,” he said.
Though eventually receiving VA disability benefits, he said his physical and mental wounds from war made it hard to find stable employment in the meantime.
“I went through multiple jobs, whether it was physical things like my neck and shoulder that caused me not to be able to continue working, or it was mental health issues like panic attacks while working,” he said. “I went through 13 or 14 jobs in the first couple of years after I got out.”
Hayhurst, who now lives in Washington State with his wife and children, said his financial situation deteriorated.
“We ended up filing for bankruptcy because we couldn’t keep up with our bills,” he said. “We lost our vehicles because we couldn’t afford them anymore. We had to move into subsidized housing because we couldn’t afford rent.”
Seemingly having been on the path to a successful Army career, with an early promotion to staff sergeant on the horizon, Hayhurst said the sudden end also dealt a psychological blow.
“The biggest thing I did in my life has now boiled down to a personality disorder,” he said.
He said he also fell out of contact with the men he fought with in Iraq.
“I didn’t talk to anybody because I was ashamed of what happened,” he said. “I figured it was my fault, I had done something wrong.”
A Department of Defense report to Congress said that of 22,656 troops who were separated for personality disorder between FY 2001 and 2007, only 3,372 (15%) had deployed in support of the War on Terror. Most of the rest were separated within the first year of service, according to DOD.
But a 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study concluded DOD did “not have reasonable assurance that its key personality disorder separation requirements have been followed.”
The report noted that accurately diagnosing service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan with a personality disorder could be particularly challenging.
“Some of the symptoms of a personality disorder — irritability, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, and aggressiveness — are similar to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” the report said.
As a result of GAO’s findings, defense leaders were grilled on the subject of wrongful personality disorder separations during a 2010 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
Lernes Hebert, then acting director of Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management for DOD, said efforts were under way to contact all veterans who were separated for personality disorders after having deployed.
“We are reaching out to them to inform them of what options are available to them if they consider their discharge mischaracterized,” Hebert said.
Hayhurst said he received a message from DOD around 2012, but that it wasn’t very helpful.
“I got one of those letters. That letter had no contact information at all. All it told you was that they were going to relook at it. It didn’t tell you how to get it relooked at or what to do or who to call,” Hayhurst said.
After several appeals, he said the Army has so far refused to change the designation on his record.
“Each time they shot me down, I would go through bad depression,” he said.
Hayhurst argued that with much more known since about PTSD, his record deserves to be corrected.
Now armed with a pro-bono legal team, he is trying again, also hoping to spread awareness of what he said he’s worried might be a much larger problem.
“I’ve been told by Vietnam vets they were doing the same thing to Vietnam vets in Vietnam when they came home,” he said. “And it really bothers me to think they might still be doing it now.”
He said he is also back in touch with a group of the men he served with in Iraq.
“We talk every day,” he said.
In the end, Hayhurst said, he simply wants to be treated fairly.
“I want an honest look at it. I believe from what I know of the evidence, that they were wrong and that I should have been rated at least somewhat for the PTSD and possibly a little bit for my shoulder as well, which those ratings right there through the Army would qualify me for more programs,” he said.
But Hayhurst said military benefits would only be a perk of his record being updated.
“It would mean that they didn’t think I was a screw-up,” he said. “Which might sound silly — but I’d like to know that. It really bothers me that they threw me away that way.”
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.