Veterans Discharged For Misconduct Often Suffer From Mental Health Illnesses

A federal report has found that 62 percent of military personnel discharged for misconduct from 2011 through 2015 had been diagnosed with mental illnesses that could have caused their behaviors.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that the military failed to follow policies designed to prevent inappropriate discharge of service members with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The result is many veterans received less than honorable discharges, making them ineligible for health care, disability benefits, or education aid from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The GAO said 57,141 service members discharged for misconduct had been diagnosed up to two years before their release with conditions that included: PTSD, TBI, adjustment disorders, alcohol-related and substance abuse disorders, depression and anxiety.

The conditions, which the GAO called “signature wounds” of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, can affect moods, thoughts and behaviors and may trigger activities such as drug use, insubordination, absence from the military without permission, and crimes, the report states.

The report found the Armed Forces violated requirements in Pentagon policies, federal law and, in the case of the Army and Marine Corps, their own policies that included: medical exams for certain service members to determine if PTSD or TBI were factors in their misconduct; training service members to identify TBI symptoms in deployment settings; explaining potential loss of VA benefits when a veteran has a choice of an administrative discharge over a court martial trial; and monitoring adherence to policies.

Stephen Kennedy, a founder of the Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was “heartened to see the GAO acknowledge what many of us have known for a long time: Veterans with PTSD, TBI and other mental health issues are being hung out to dry.”

Kennedy, who lives in Fairfield, said after soldiers are discharged for actions triggered by their service-connected conditions, “they are cut off from the very benefits that would allow them to treat those symptoms and rebuild their lives in the civilian world.”

John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, expressed similar sentiments. “It’s horrific to think of these young men and women as statistics, but that’s what they’re becoming,” he said, calling the GAO report “immensely disturbing.”

Kennedy was discharged from the Army in 2009 after he left his base without permission to attend his wedding, an action he attributed to PTSD. He received a General Under Honorable discharge, preventing him from receiving education benefits under the GI bill and from re-entering the Army. He unsuccessfully applied for a discharge upgrade and is now a plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the Army is violating a Pentagon policy that requires consideration of PTSD in upgrade applications.

In a related development, the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) and Swords to Ploughshares of California have received a grant to hire lawyers to represent 50 veterans with less than honorable discharges who have conditions such as PTSD and TBI and are prevented from obtaining VA benefits. The grant from the New York-based Bob Woodruff Foundation will also be used to create a manual and online courses based on the 50 cases to be used by legal organizations nationwide.

VA Secretary David Shulkin has said he will establish a policy this summer to allow veterans with other than honorable discharges and in a mental health crisis to get VA care.

U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, has proposed legislation to provide VA mental and behavioral health care to certain veterans discharged under other than honorable conditions.

The GAO is the audit, evaluation and investigative arm of Congress.

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