Lewis-McChord combat vet loses GI Bill for pot and spice

May 5, 2011

Here's a soldier's tale. Bill Surwillo deploys to Afghanistan. Nearly a quarter of his platoon is killed. He comes home with PTSD. He turns to marijuana and spice – a synthetic version of the drug – to relax. The Army kicks him out and takes away his GI Bill. Is this fair?

I meet Bill Surwillo at a noisy café just outside the gates of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. His car is packed and he's ready to head home to Wisconsin. He's been kicked out of the Army for drug use one day shy of his official end of service date – and he's bitter.

"I gave my life to that unit for the past four years."

Surwillo is especially upset the Army took away his college benefits. He wanted go to trade school to become a plumber or welder.

Sitting next to him in the café booth is his friend and fellow battle buddy, Nick White. Over the din, they describe the chaos in both their lives since they returned home.

That leads them to war stories from what they call their "gnarly" deployment to Afghanistan.

Surwillo tells me about one of the many roadside bombs that maimed and killed his friends and fellow soldiers.

"We were driving down a road on a resupply mission and our 2-1 vehicle hits an IED. Saw the mushroom cloud. Stryker go up."

Two soldiers were killed in that incident.

One year later to the day, Surwillo and White decided to hit the bars to commemorate the anniversary of their friends' deaths. The evening ended with Nick White in jail for pulling a gun on a bar patron.

Here's his profanity-laced description of what happened.

 "Somehow I ended up with a f------- 45 cocked, back f------ ready to f------ go in this dude's face just I don't know why and that's when these guys came around oh s---, Nick's about to f------ grease this dude."

If White was itchy when he got home from Afghanistan, Surwillo was subdued. He started seeing a counselor, told her about picking up the body parts of dead comrades.

And then there were the deaths back home in Wisconsin. He lost his father that year and then two close friends in a car accident.

Surwillo's counselor – in her notes - wrote that he met the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. But Surwillo says he wasn't prescribed any medications for his flashbacks and other symptoms.

Sitting in the café, he says he found something else that helped him cope.

"Smoked a little bit of spice to relax on the weekend. Whatever, that was it."

Spice is a chemical-laced herb that looks like marijuana. It's illegal in Washington and the military forbids it.

One day last December, Surwillo and a friend tried to bring some spice onto base. They were stopped at the gate. He tells me what happened next.

"They said the car smelled like weed smoke or something like that and so that gave them probable cause to search us so they searched us and found it. Arrested us, put us in cuffs, took us to jail."

Then a drug test came back positive for marijuana. His battalion commander ordered him discharged under honorable circumstances. Honorable, not dishonorable, but it would still cost him his college benefits.

Dr. Bridget Cantrell, of Bellingham is an expert on soldiers and PTSD. She believes Surwillo's commanders should have gotten him help instead of booting him from the Army.

"This is a very big deal. To lose your objective, to lose your purpose, your goals, your goals are cut short because you made a mistake."

Officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord say they can't comment on individual cases. Nor would they provide statistics on the number of soldiers discharged for drugs.

But Army-wide that number was more than 3,000 last year – a 54 percent increase compared to five years ago.

Dr. Les McFarling heads the Army's substance abuse program. He says combat vets are subject to the same zero-tolerance drug policy as soldiers just out of boot camp.

"We don’t a policy that says if you have PTSD you get a pass."

But he adds commanders can consider those factors when deciding how to handle a soldier who's been caught using drugs.

"We place a lot of trust in a commander's ability to make discretionary decisions such as this."

Bill Surwillo admits he messed up. But he doesn't think he got a fair shake. He notes his first three years in the Army were unblemished. He has an Army good conduct medal to prove it.

And remember his battle buddy Nick White – the one who pulled the gun outside of a bar? When we spoke at the café, White said the Army was giving him a medical discharge with benefits because of his PTSD.

In a follow up interview by phone, Surwillo said he sees a double standard.

"Don't get me wrong. He's still my best friend. I can't hold that against him, but I didn't hurt anybody. I didn't cost anybody any money. I didn't vandalize anything. I didn't steal anything."

Now with no money for college, Surwillo recently took a job pumping gas for eight bucks an hour.

"I'm not rich. I can't afford to pay for my own college. That was one of the main reasons I joined the military. And now I'm probably going to be stuck at a dead-end job working at a gas station for the rest of my life."

Surwillo can appeal his discharge. But a military defense attorney I consulted says those are tough cases to win.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network