by T. Christian Miller & Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica, & Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
If you want more explanation about the militaryâ€™s troubles in treating troops with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, read no further than two recent but largely unnoticed reports from the Government Accountability Office.
It turns out the Pentagonâ€™s solution to the problems is an organization plagued by weak leadership, uncertain priorities and a money trail so tangled that even the GAOâ€™s investigators couldnâ€™t sort it out. The GAO findings on the Pentagonâ€™s Defense Centers of Excellence (DCOE) echo our own series  on the militaryâ€™s difficulty in handling the so-called invisible wounds of war.
â€œWe have an organization that exists, but we have considerable concern about what it is that itâ€™s actually accomplishing,â€ said Denise Fantone, a GAO director who supervised research on one of the reports. She added: â€œI canâ€™t say with any certainty that I know what DCOE does, and I think thatâ€™s a concern.â€
First, some background. After the 2007 scandal over poor care delivered to soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Congress ordered the Pentagon to do a better job treating soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The Pentagonâ€™s answer was to create DCOE . The new organization was supposed to be a clearinghouse to foster cutting-edge research in treatments.
DCOE was rushed into existence in late 2007. Since then, it has churned through three leaders, including one let go after alleged sexual harassment of subordinates . It takes more than five months to hire each employee because of the federal governmentâ€™s glacial process. As a result, private contractors make up much of the centerâ€™s staff.
â€œDCOEâ€™s development has been challenged by a mission that lacks clarity and by time-consuming hiring processes,â€ according to the first report in the GAO series , focusing on â€œmanagement weaknessâ€ at DCOE.
Just as concerning, the GAO says that it canâ€™t quite figure out how much money DCOE has received or where it has all gone. DCOE has never submitted a budget document that fully conformed to typical federal standards, according to a GAO report released last month . In one year, the center simply turned in a spreadsheet without detailed explanations.
The Defense Department says that DCOE got $168 million beginning in fiscal year 2010â€”but the GAO isnâ€™t buying that number: â€œBecause of unresolved concerns with the reliability of funding and obligations data provided by DOD (Department of Defense), we cannot confirm the accuracy of figures related to DCOE.â€ The GAO report reproduces this disclaimer no fewer than five times.
DCOE concurred with the bulk of the GAOâ€™s findings and promised to fix its accounting errors and prevent them from happening again.
In its defense, DCOE has never had an easy job. It was created on the fly and tasked to deal with some of the most complicated mental-health issues in the militaryâ€™s history. In addition, it has faced stiff bureaucratic resistance, with some Pentagon officials questioning its usefulness..
The Pentagon said that DCOE was conducting a â€œcomprehensive reviewâ€ to improve its operations.
â€œThere is still substantial work to be done,â€ said Cynthia O. Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. â€œWe must ensure we are properly allocating resources and establishing priorities to take care of our service members.â€
One telling GAO footnote suggests the extent of the obstacles the organization has faced. In Pentagon war games, the enemy is generally represented by the color red. When Congress ordered up its improvements in 2007, the Pentagon created a special committee to push through reforms that led to DCOEâ€™s creation.
The special committee decided to call itself the â€œRed Cell.â€ Why? â€œThe daunting task facing this team would likely make them the enemy of everyone else in the bureaucracy they sought to change,â€ the GAO says.