American soldier in an armored vehicle in the village of Darbasiyah, Syria, last month. Photo credit: Associated Press
Excerpted from The New York Times | By Dave Philipps
Three-fifths of troops discharged from the military for misconduct in recent years had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or another associated condition, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office.
The report, mandated by Congress, for the first time combined military medical and staffing data, as well as data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, to show that tens of thousands of wounded troops were kicked out of the armed forces and severed from benefits designed to ease their transition from service in war.
“It is everything many of us believed for years” said Kristopher Goldsmith, a veteran who served in Iraq and was discharged for misconduct after a suicide attempt. He is now an assistant director for policy at Vietnam Veterans of America, a veterans advocacy group based in Washington. “Many people didn’t believe that the problem could be this big. Now I hope Congress will direct the resources to making it right.”
From 2011 to 2015, according to the report, nearly 92,000 troops were discharged for misconduct — the military equivalent of being fired. Troops can be discharged for reasons like testing positive for drugs or repeatedly showing up late. And in recent years, as the military was downsized, misconduct discharges surged.
Of those discharged, 57,000 had a diagnosis of PTSD, traumatic brain injury (known as TBI) or a related condition. About 9,000 were found to have PTSD or TBI. But a majority had a personality disorder or an adjustment disorder — diagnoses that count as pre-existing conditions, not war wounds. Critics of the military’s handling of mental health have long accused the military of using such diagnoses to sidestep safeguards put in place for troops with PTSD.
In recent years, after repeated news media reports suggested that wounded troops were being discharged in higher numbers, the military adopted regulations to require mental health screening to detect PTSD and TBI before a soldier was punished. Tuesday’s report found that screenings were often not conducted. In the Army and the Marine Corps, about 40 percent of cases reviewed by investigators did not have the required screening.
The report found that neither individual military branches nor the Defense Department monitored whether the screenings and other safeguards were put into effect. The Army, which is responsible for the largest number of discharges, did not respond to requests for comment.
Hardest hit of these troops, the report found, were the 13,000 who received other-than-honorable discharges. The punitive-discharge status bars most troops from veterans’ health care, education funding and disability pensions. While veterans with other-than-honorable discharges can appeal to qualify for these benefits, the process is slow and confusing and rarely successful. The report found the vast majority of veterans with other-than-honorable discharges — 87 percent in recent years — had not applied for veterans’ benefits.
“Before, we were speculating. Now we have hard numbers to prove there are this vast numbers of combat veterans affected,” said Representative Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado and an Iraq veteran who has introduced a number of pieces of legislation to give these veterans access to health care and other benefits. “I think there is a will in Congress to help. There was just a lack of understanding. This lays a foundation we can work from.”
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