Last July, just over a year ago, Green Beret Tim Brumit made the wrong call.
Thinking he saw a drowning girl in stormy seas a short distance from his boat, he dove into the choppy surf, but misjudged the depth—and instantly broke his neck. The missing girl was later found safe on shore.
Now paralyzed from the chest down, Sergeant First Class Brumit is being forced to endure a whole new kind of hardship.
The U.S. Army just informed him that it judged his actions on that July day reckless due to alcohol and drugs. Now the veteran of hundreds of raids and deadly firefights in eight combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq is fighting to save his military career. He has roughly three weeks to get the Army’s decision overturned or face a possible “other-than-honorable” discharge from service and possible loss of his military medical care.
Speaking exclusively to The Daily Beast, the 33-year-old Brumit admits the facts on the surface are against him. He had 0.1 percent blood alcohol in his system at the time of the injury, though that wasn’t illegal because he wasn’t driving, just sitting on a boat with friends.
Worse, Brumit’s hospital toxicology report showed traces of cocaine and amphetamines in his system, and an Army buddy told investigators he’d seen an apparent drug dealer at Brumit’s condo the night before selling other members of Brumit’s unit a white powdered substance.
“I’m going to take responsibility for the fact that I had a coping problem” that he dealt with by drinking and sometimes taking drugs, Brumit told The Daily Beast. “But the day of the injury, I had not used anything, and I wasn’t even drunk.”
He says he was clear-headed when he heard the Coast Guard alert about a missing girl, first discussing it with friends and then spotting what he thought was the girl struggling in the choppy channel.
“She did not seem too far. I was a good swimmer. I felt the responsibility and felt very capable of doing something, even with the storm,” Brumit said. “I have a daughter. I would want someone to do the same for her.”
He said he calmly removed his cellphone and wallet, told his boat companions that this was something he had to do, and made what he thought was a shallow dive into the water, which he thought was chest-deep. But the storm-churned waves were ebbing, turning the water momentarily more shallow.
“When I dove in, the water seemed to slip away and the sand bar was right there, and there was no turning back, and I hit my head,” Brumit said, describing the instant his life changed forever.
“I tried to shake it off… and realized I’d heard something break. I thought, oh my God, I’ve broken my neck.”
His friends saw him face down in the water, not moving, and jumped in to pull him out, calling the Coast Guard, which was still looking for the missing girl, to come rescue him.
Army officials who came to visit him in those hours afterward at the hospital somehow obtained his toxicology report, without his permission, leading to the year-long legal fight first to prove the facts and then to fight a judgment against him.
Brumit admits that he hasn’t always been a model soldier, addicted to alcohol and answering with his fists when the towering Ranger was taunted by his new Green Beret brothers after work. But emails reviewed by The Daily Beast show that Brumit and his father had begged his commanding officers for more than a year for help to stop using—to find a different way to cope with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
The commanders’ response: deny Brumit had any serious psychological, neurological, or substance abuse problems at all.
Brumit says his problems started when he left a high-achieving career as a U.S. Army Ranger to qualify as a Green Beret, eventually being assigned in 2013 to the 7th Special Forces Group at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He and his wife separated during Green Beret training, and later divorced, and the young children stayed with her, after symptoms of his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan started emerging: nightmares and sleeplessness; hypervigilance that meant he was always on guard in any public setting for possible danger; and violent mood swings from anger to depression that he would suppress with an emotional numbness to function at work.
His father, Randy, a retired Green Beret, said during this time that Brumit became distant from his mom and dad, even as his father pleaded with him to get help.
It was hard to convince the younger soldier. Although senior Army officers go through the motions of telling their troops to use the psychological help confidentially available at the base, many troops still believe that a diagnosis of PTSD on a soldier’s permanent record can stunt or end their career. While numbers of active duty troops suffering from PTSD are harder to come by because of privacy regulations, it’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are thought to have PTSD, according to Dr. Brian Marx, at the VA’s National Center for PTSD.
The father had finally convinced his son to go to a 7th Special Forces Group chaplain, then-Captain Ralph Nab, in the summer of 2013. Chaplains are often the first port of call for a struggling soldier to confide about personal, professional, or family issues. The clergymen and -women are trained to recognize signs of mental health issues like PTSD that would require greater care than they can provide, and usually try to steer troops to psychologists or other specialists who can help.
Struggling soldier Brumit said he told the chaplain of his grief over his wife’s departure along with their toddler and infant. He discussed his drinking to alleviate his sleeplessness and nightmares. And he detailed his obsessive thoughts over one raid in particular in Afghanistan—a 22-hour firefight infamous at the 75th Ranger Regiment that pitted a couple dozen Rangers against an estimated 500 Taliban. The 2009 battle cost Brumit one of his best friends, Staff Sergeant Jason Dahlke, 29, as well as a 19-year-old Ranger, Private First Class Eric Hario. Brumit had just taken Hario to task before takeoff for the mission because something minor was wrong with his gear.
“I told him to fix it or he was going to get himself killed,” Brumit said. Hario did as he was told, and quickly, Brumit said, because he was a good soldier.
Hario was shot by a hidden enemy just after running off the helicopter, as was Staff Sergeant Dahlke.
“Losing a young kid that I was a father figure to, led to the loss of hope, and fear,” Brumit said. “I kept feeling like if I kept doing things like this, my number was coming up. For me, it turned into an isolating numbness.” He said the coldness seeped into his relationship with his wife and kids.
“I had nightmares. I was on guard more, especially in public and crowds,” he said. “I coped with alcohol and later with other means.”
Brumit recalls describing this to the chaplain, and adding, “I’ve been on a thousand raids, but this one bothers me like no other.”
Within days, it appeared to Brumit that the chaplain had broken faith and revealed his conversation to his chain of command. Phrases Brumit had shared in confidence and bits of his life story were spat back at him by senior members of 7th Group.
“So you think you’ve got PTSD from your 1,000 raids,” they’d sneer at him. “You’re not going to blame your poor performance on that,” he remembered them saying—conversations he memorialized in notes he wrote at the advice of his father.
Brumit said Nab later became supportive of him, inviting him to his church and home, but the original breach of trust had done its damage. Nab, now an Army major, refused to speak to The Daily Beast directly but said Sunday through an Army spokesman that he did not recall meeting with the soldier. Brumit identified Nab by this Army bio (PDF) as the chaplain he spoke to and exchanged emails with when he first arrived at 7th Special Forces Group.
Brumit’s problems mounted. He got into a bar fight with his team sergeant, who nearly sliced Brumit’s left ear off, but it was Brumit who got written up for the infraction.
He was then charged with a DUI that local police later dropped for lack of evidence. Brumit said he was the designated driver that night, taking another drunk soldier home, and said it was fumes from that man emanating from the car that led to the charge, though Brumit didn’t help his case by refusing to take a breathalyzer test.
As his son was fighting the DUI charge, Randy Brumit started reaching out to a multitude of senior special operations officers for his son to get help for his still-undiagnosed PTSD, in emails shared with The Daily Beast.
“He has tried to hide the PTSD as the vast majority of Type A, SOF (special operations forces) Warriors do,” the elder retired Green Beret wrote to 7th Group Command Sergeant Major Amil Alvarez in a January 2015 email.
The command sergeant major wrote back that he wasn’t aware of Tim Brumit’s post-traumatic stress issues, but would look into it.
Threatened with an administrative letter over the DUI allegations that could have ended his career, Brumit shared his troubles with his then 7th Group commander, Col. Chris Riga, and Alvarez, the command sergeant major. They came through, helping him fight the letter of censure he’d received for the now-dismissed DUI allegation. They also recommended he seek help for his alcohol issues.
“SFC Brumit is a seasoned and decorated Special Operations Warrior that is being treated for his issues with alcohol abuse, as a result of possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Alvarez wrote in a letter of support to Army commanders. “His combat record and performance under some of the most dangerous conditions in defense of our nation should be considered.”
In the same letter, Alvarez went on to cite another non-commissioned officer about Brumit’s recent poor performance review at 7th Group—which was in stark contrast to his performance as a Ranger.
“He stated that his intent was to perhaps slow SFC Brumit’s advancement and give him more time to work through his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues,” Alvarez wrote.
Brumit reported to Alvarez by email a short time later that he’d enrolled himself in the Air Force alcohol and drug abuse program known as ADAPT. Brumit added that he was scheduled to meet the 7th Group psychologist, saying he was “hopeful to discuss options with PTSD treatment opportunities.”
So Brumit avoided military punishment that time, but his meeting with the Army psychologist did not lead to treatment for his PTSD.
Instead, he was diagnosed with “adjustment disorder,” the same diagnosis he’d received a year earlier from an Air Force psychologist, which Brumit understood to mean he was depressed about his difficult transition to a new unit and his divorce. That meant no specific counseling would be available for what he strongly believed was PTSD.
Worse, with senior leaders apparently unaware, Brumit’s company sergeant major kept pulling him out of the ADAPT course, making him miss meetings repeatedly—an action later protested by Brumit’s alcohol abuse counselors in a memo to 7th Group. “His prognosis at program termination was very guarded due to his lack of participation due to his command requiring him to be on the job,” wrote Air Force ADAPT supervisor James Gwyn in an August 2015 memo.
7th Group’s answer to keeping a now-acknowledged addict away from alcohol? They told him to stay away from bars.
“I was still in a downward spiral, but tried to mask it at work. Off work, I was using alcohol,” he said, “and harder drugs.”
“Being Special Forces, after being in South America, my dependence changed from just alcohol to cocaine because it was something that would counteract alcohol, which is a depressant, and bring you up,” a rollercoaster of briefly rocketing up before crashing down again.
It was six weeks after being withdrawn from the ADAPT course that Brumit had his fateful encounter with the sea floor, while trying to reach what he thought was a girl struggling against high waves in the sea channel.
After any such injury or accident, the Army carries out what is called a “Line of Duty” investigation to determine whether the soldier was reckless. The Brumits believe the Army investigator had his mind made up that Brumit was a bad soldier from the start—that perhaps the original toxicology report the investigator mysteriously obtained changed everything. The day after the incident, when Brumit was still in the hospital, 7th Special Forces Group went cold. The sympathetic Riga had departed for another command already, but Alvarez and the other senior officers never visited Brumit during his long ordeal in the hospital, his father said.
The Army investigator, Special Forces Captain Adam Bolton, even tried to argue in the original Line of Duty finding that there was no missing girl and no storm, and that the Brumits had fabricated the rescue story to get the Army to pay for the soldier’s drunken error.
Subsequent versions of the thrice-updated investigation provided by the Brumits show the Army’s allegations against the paralyzed soldier were corrected to reflect that the Coast Guard had reported a missing girl, one 13-year-old Mary Sane. But the investigator still concluded that Brumit’s drinking on the boat before the accident was to blame for the tragedy.
“SFC Brumit’s injuries were proximately caused by his erratic and reckless behavior, the result of cognitive impairment from his consumption of alcohol,” Capt. Adam Bolton wrote. “Brumit also had cocaine and amphetamines in his system at the time of the injury which further impaired his cognitive abilities.”
Brumit argued that the drugs were traces from the day before, with no lasting intoxicating effect almost a day later. He also said that 0.1 percent blood alcohol was not enough to impair a diagnosed alcoholic male—especially one of his size.
“Me being 260 pounds and 6 foot 4, and an alcoholic, what I learned at ADAPT is that I would need a .3 blood alcohol to affect me,” Brumit said. “A functioning alcoholic has to have a .3 to be drunk.”
The surgeon who later operated on him wrote a letter of support, saying that just an hour or so after the injury, Brumit was lucid and alert, showing no signs of alcohol impairment.
Multiple current and former senior commanders and congressional staffers said they’d almost never heard of such a finding going against a dead or injured soldier.
“Even if the guy killed himself driving his motorcycle drunk at high speed, we try to find a way to make sure his family gets his benefits,” one former senior commander said, speaking anonymously in order to discuss confidential personnel decisions.
The Army’s point of view through the concluding investigation document and the letter of reprimand are clear: The investigator says Brumit is a soldier with a history of performance problems and alcohol abuse who blames everything on PTSD the Army says doesn’t exist.
“SFC Brumit has been screened for substance, behavioral and TBI-related conditions and has no evidence of symptoms or experiences that warrant the diagnosis of PTSD or TBI predating his injury on 25 July 2015,” writes battalion surgeon Capt. Christopher Brooks in a November 2015 email. “I agree with the diagnosis by Eglin AFB psychology that the diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder made in 2014 is the most appropriate diagnosis given his multiple stressors at home.”
The Brumits have since turned to Emory Healthcare Veterans Program in Atlanta, where Brumit was diagnosed with “post traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder,” according to a letter from Dr. Laura Loucks. Brumit also made his raw medical diagnosis available to The Daily Beast, which includes mention of suicidal thoughts, stemming from the Afghan firefight.
Brumit is still waiting for the results of testing for traumatic brain injury, after roughly 700 missions as the lead breacher using high explosives to blast through doors during raids, and training missions where he would fire the Carl Gustav recoilless rifle until his nose would bleed and he’d cough up blood.
For the elder Brumit, the Emory diagnosis is vindicating, but also speaks to what he sees as the Army’s neglect of his son.
“If they’d listened to me, my son wouldn’t be paralyzed right now,” the retired Green Beret said.
A U.S. Army spokesman declined to comment on the Brumit case, but a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said Lt. Gen. Ken Tovo is studying the case.
“First and foremost, the command is sympathetic to SFC Brumit’s tragic injury. The USASOC Commander is currently considering providing support to SFC Brumit’s request for reconsideration,” Lt. Col. Rob Bockholt emailed Friday. “LTG Tovo is not questioning the decisions of the subordinate commanders, but is considering the totality of SFC Brumit’s service to the nation and factors that could have led to this unfortunate accident.” The spokesman pointed out that the Army’s Human Resources Command is the ultimate decider of the case.
A number of members of Congress are looking into the case, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a former Marine who has championed many cases of troops in the crosshairs of what he sees as unjust military punishment.
“Brumit was denied the opportunity to not only receive a full diagnosis, he was also prevented from obtaining treatment that he and others—with the exception of his command—recognized was necessary,” Hunter wrote in a letter Friday to Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning. “Now that Brumit will require a lifetime of medical care, an unfavorable discharge of any type fails to account for the Army’s failure to support one of its top-rate warriors,” he concluded.
“The military leadership comes in and tells Congress and tells the American people that the most important thing to them is their soldiers,” Hunter said in an interview Friday. “They talk about a brotherhood and... about how important it is to take care of them. The reality is, their actions prove otherwise. They look for the first opportunity to drop these people.”
The retired Green Beret community is rallying around the Brumits, writing letters of support to the Army board that could potentially overturn the finding against him. The Green Beret Foundation, which supports active and retired Special Forces soldiers, has set up a fund for Brumit’s care.
Brumit’s lawyer Will Helixon, a veteran officer of the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, thinks they have a good case to overturn the decision, based on 7th Group’s prior actions.
“When they take him out of a program which is basically one of the first steps to recover… it speaks volumes,” he said. “That 7th Group thought their training was more important than this soldier.”
Tim Brumit now spends his days trapped in a wheelchair, living at his parents’ house, which they’ve spent roughly $100,000 adapting to his needs, his dad says. The younger Brumit has some use of his arms, but his hands and fingers don’t work, so he needs help with everything from bathing and dressing to eating, and of course, moving his still-massive frame from bed to wheelchair. He’s had multiple complications and multiple emergency surgeries over the past year, and still feels diffuse burning nerve pain that shoots from his chest through the rest of his body that nerve blockers don’t stop and doctors can’t seem to fix. Brumit says he refused to take opiates because of the addiction risk, and they wouldn’t stop this type of pain anyway.
The only upside is that now his ex-wife lets him see his children two to three times a week, as he’s no longer the distant father, working obsessively to prove himself and drinking himself senseless to sleep every night.
That still leaves a lot of time in Brumit’s days to think about the Army’s ruling against him, which he sees as the final insult following years of risking his life for his country and its people, no matter what the cost.
“I’m now paralyzed for trying to do the right thing, and you want to turn it against me? You broke me and now you want to strip me of the benefits I earned in my 12-plus years of service, and you want to hit me while I’m down, and take it from me?” he said of the Army that was his life.
He said one senior officer said to him, “‘Hey, Tim, you’re a great soldier. You’re awesome at work, but you have some issues off duty. We all saw this coming. I’d love to say we could help you with this, but we can’t.’
“Well, if you all saw it coming, why didn’t you intervene and help me?” Brumit said in frustration.
“I had a problem, and I told you I did. You guys take no ownership of it,” he said.
“The Army broke me. I believe they owe me an honorable discharge, my record clean, and a lifetime of medical care that I’m going to require to live a normal life,” he said.
Updated 2pm 9/14/16: This article was amended at Tim Brumit’s request to reflect that he and his ex-wife decided mutually to separate.