House Republican asks for probe of Navy whistle-blower's firing

Walter Jones wants to know why a Camp Lejeune psychiatrist was fired -- and why his personnel records were doctored

Published February 3, 2010 8:04PM (EST)

A House Republican wants a new, high-level, independent probe into the firing and alleged smearing of a psychiatrist who blew the whistle on what he says was poorly managed mental health care for Marines back from war at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones also says the psychiatrist who worked there, Dr. Kernan Manion, might have been right about his complaints in the first place.

Jones wrote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Jan. 25 expressing “serious concerns” about the Navy’s own, completed investigation into Manion’s case and calling for a new review by the Defense Department inspector general.

“I am compelled to request an additional investigation by the Department of Defense IG’s office,” Jones wrote Gates, insisting that the new probe be kept out of the Navy’s hands. “I believe this should be a priority, given the additional strain our country is placing on our service members during this time of war.”

Manion generated a long paper trail at Camp Lejeune last year warning base hospital officials, including Cmdr. Robert O'Byrne, head of mental health there, that poorly managed care for troubled Marines could result in more violence and deaths. Frustrated by what he saw as an inadequate response, Manion finally appealed to a series of military inspectors general on Aug. 30, warning of “immediate threat of loss of life and/or harm to service members’ selves or others” if management did not improve. (There has been a string of suicides and murders among Marines at Camp Lejeune.)

Manion, who worked for a contractor, got fired four days later, on Sept 3, with no explanation.

On Nov. 15, Salon first published an article exposing Manion’s complaints and concern for the Marines at Camp Lejeune. The contractor that fired Manion said it did so at the Navy's request.

On Nov. 16, one day after that Salon article, Jones wrote Gates about Manion and the doctor’s subsequent termination. Gates referred the matter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Mabus responded to Jones on Dec. 17. That letter says Navy officials had completed their own investigation into Manion’s termination. Mabus wrote that the investigation showed that rather than firing Manion as an act of retribution, Manion got terminated because he was an unprofessional, disrespectful doctor who failed to improve his performance despite formal warnings.

On Jan. 31, Salon published an article and supporting documentation showing that within days of Salon’s first article on Nov. 15, O’Byrne edited a once-satisfactory performance evaluation for Manion, adding new, derogatory information. With his changes, O’Byrne characterized Manion as unethical and unprofessional, similar to some of the claims that ended up in Mabus’ Dec. 17 letter to Jones.

Presumably, Mabus got his information from Camp Lejeune officials, perhaps from the same people who doctored Manion’s file. Navy officials have not responded to Salon’s questions about where Mabus got his information and whether anyone in Mabus’ office checked the veracity of the negative information about Manion. A Camp Lejeune hospital spokesman has denied “allegations” about O’Byrne but will not say what allegations specifically.

Jones obviously has the same documents obtained by Salon showing an apparent smear of Manion. “My office is in receipt of emails showing that Dr. Manion’s final performance evaluation ... was altered prior to the arrival of Naval investigators,” Jones charged in his Jan. 25 letter to Gates. Jones also notes e-mail traffic, also cited by Salon, showing an apparent order by O’Byrne to destroy Manion’s earlier, positive performance evaluation.

Jones now wants the Defense Department inspector general to take a fresh look at the whole mess. “The investigation should remain in the DOD IG and not be referred to the Navy IG,” Jones requested in his latest letter to Gates. “I continue to receive complaints regarding the operations surrounding mental health care at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune.”

Jones has a long track record working to improve treatment of combat stress and brain injuries among returning troops, the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no word yet on whether Gates will launch the new investigation requested by Jones.

In his Jan. 25 letter to Gates, Jones also pointed out another shortcoming in the Navy’s own investigation into Manion’s termination -- nobody called Manion to get his side of the story. “I have difficulty understanding how thorough an investigation into Dr. Manion’s termination was conducted, when the complainant was never interviewed,” Jones noted.

Salon called Manion to determine if that’s right. Manion said his phone never rang. “That is correct,” Manion said. “No one has ever contacted me about that.”


Download the letter here.

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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