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Jan. 27, 2016, 10:34 a.m.
Reporting & Production

From Nieman Reports: Fifty years of the Freedom of Information Act

Data obtained through a FOIA request, for instance, gave a Colorado Springs Gazette reporter the “confidence to do something bigger.” The end result: a Pulitzer Prize-winning series.

Editor’s note: There are lots of new stories to read from the newest issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports. But Nieman Lab readers might be particularly interested in this story by John Dyer, about how journalists are innovating new ways to use FOIA, as the law turns 50 years old.

Dave Philipps was well acquainted with the plight of troubled veterans when he heard about a soldier in the El Paso County jail two years ago. As a reporter at The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Philipps had written extensively about veterans coping with life after combat. The soldier in the county jail was a special case, though. He was psychotic.

After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldier, Jerry Melton, was prone to violent outbursts and had pointed a loaded machine gun at fellow soldiers during an argument. After numerous misdiagnoses, drug treatments, and a stint in a secure psychiatric hospital where he showed signs of homicidal urges, the Army remanded him to the civilian jail to await court-martial for the gun incident.

At first, Philipps believed he’d simply found a new angle on the old story of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries. “What counts as an injury?” Philipps says. “What counts as psychological? And how can you tell? I went into it thinking that was the story.”

But Philipps changed his mind after he returned to the jail to see Melton a second time. The soldier was gone. He’d voluntarily quit the military without facing charges. “It took a while to figure out that the Army had come to him and said, ‘We won’t court-martial you if you sign a paper,’” recalls Philipps, adding that Melton’s get-out-of-jail card came at a price. “Part of the deal is signing away your claims to veterans’ benefits.”

The episode got Philipps thinking. How many vets had quit the Army and lost their benefits in lieu of facing court-martial for fighting, alcohol abuse, insubordination, and other behaviors associated with PTSD and similar injuries? “We had a lot of people getting arrested for violent crimes in Colorado fresh back from Iraq,” he says.

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request answered Philipps’ question.

Philipps submitted a FOIA to the Army requesting data on GIs given so-called Chapter 10 discharges for misconduct. Around six weeks later, he received a bunch of spreadsheets via e-mail. “As soon as I saw the data, it was very clear there was a sharp increase [in Chapter 10 discharges], an increase that was sharpest where there were the most combat troops,” he says. “Did it definitely say that troops that were burned out were getting kicked out the back door? No. All I had was correlation. That gave both me and the newspaper confidence to do something bigger.”

The result was the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Other than Honorable” series about the Army discharging traumatized and injured soldiers for misconduct. “This week, a Gazette investigation has shown that the number of soldiers discharged Army-wide for misconduct has increased every year since 2006 and is up more than 60 percent in that time, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act,” Philipps wrote.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports →

Illustration by Ben Wiseman.

POSTED     Jan. 27, 2016, 10:34 a.m.
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