July 1st, 2017

Study: Military with mental issues discharged for misconduct

According to a federal study, a high number of military personnel are given less-than-honorable discharges in spite of the fact that they had been diagnosed with conditions such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury. In 2010, Congress passed a law requiring the military to assess the impact of a PTSD or TBI diagnosis before separation for misconduct and the DOD issued policies to address separations for misconduct that involve PTSD or TBI.

The study, mandated as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), also found that Department of Defense policies on addressing the impact of these injuries are not matched by policies found throughout the four branches of the military and that, where they are, those policies are not always followed by administrators.

In addition, the Army and Marines, which contain 60 percent of all military members, do not consistently train officers to identify signs of PTSD and TBI and do not monitor their own adherence to the policies in place.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at rates of separation as compared to diagnoses of PTSD, TBI and other conditions including adjustment disorders, alcohol and drug-related disorders and anxiety, bipolar, depressive and personality disorders, all conditions considered by the GAO to be associated with misconduct.

(These specific conditions were chosen by the GAO. The NDAA asked the GAO to look at PTSD, TBI and “behavioral health matters not related to PTSD, and other neurological combat traumas”).

“There was concern in Congress and in the press if service members were being treated rather than being discharged for misconduct and could potentially forfeit benefits,” said Randall Williamson, director in the health care team of the GAO.

In looking at the 91,764 service members separated for misconduct during the time period, the GAO found that 62 percent had been diagnosed with the listed conditions within the two years prior.

Of that 62 percent, 23 percent received an “other than honorable” discharge, which could make them ineligible for health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA has the authority to determine eligibility for services, and veterans may apply to be considered for services.

“We didn’t look at the VA process in detail but I did get feedback from some vets telling me that the process [of applying for a reinstatement of services] can take a year or more,” said Williamson.

Of course, not all of the listed conditions may have been brought on by experiences in the military. In their report to Congressional Committees, the GAO explains that some of the “other” conditions, like bipolar disorder and personality disorder, can be lifelong illnesses.

“The issue is making a determination of what is service-connected and whether that disorder has contributed to the less than honorable discharge,” said Gerald Sweet, Ph.D., assistant professor at William James College and forensic and police psychologist, “In addition, some pre-military behavioral, psychological and substance abuse disorders can be exacerbated by a soldier’s experience in the military.”

Mental health concerns for the military are being addressed at every level. In a recent speech to the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, VA Secretary David Shulkin addressed the high suicide rate among veterans, declaring that the VA will introduce a plan over the summer to expand services for urgent mental health care needs.

“We know the rate of death by suicide among veterans who do not use VA care is increasing at a greater rate than veterans who use VA care,” Shulkin said. “We must and we will do all that we can to help former service members who may be at risk.”

The GAO report makes several recommendations including that the DOD address inconsistencies in screening, training and monitoring policies.

The response in the press and on the Hill has been great,” said Williamson. “I have had 4-5 briefings with Congressional staff interested in this area. What Congress will do with it, I don’t know.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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