Army defends commanders who gave bad discharges to soldiers suffering from mental health issues

Capt. Dustin Harris, a behavioral health officer with the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, teaches a class about suicide awareness and prevention to a group of fellow Soldiers at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, March 31. The 40th CAB is the first California Army National Guard unit to deploy with organic behavioral health officers. (U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Ian M. Kummer, 40th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs)

A review by the United States Army has determined that unit commanders were not in the wrong when they discharged more than 22,000 Iraq or Afghanistan veterans for misconduct, despite the fact that all of the aforementioned troops had been diagnosed with brain or mental health injuries.

In a report ordered by Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, the results seemingly are written in such a matter as to reassure members of Congress that soldiers with psychological wounds are being treated in the same manner as soldiers with physical ones. However, some in Congress are not convinced.

“I don’t think the Army understands the scope of this problem,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “And I don’t think they’ve conveyed the seriousness to get it right.”

Also unconvinced is psychiatrist Judith Broder, who also founded the Soldiers Project, which serves as a network of hundreds of psychotherapists who help troops and their families. In recognition for founding the Soldiers Project, Broder was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Barack Obama.

“It’s just bizarre,” Broder said of the report, the findings of which she called “unbelievable.”

Both Secretary Fanning and the United States Army declined to provide NPR an interview with either Fanning or top officials. However, Fanning did release a statement in regards to the report.

“Anyone who is injured while serving our nation deserves to be properly diagnosed and treated,” Fanning said in his statement. “In cases where a Soldier is facing separation as a result of his or her conduct, the completion of a thorough medical review is a routine part of the Army’s process.”

Fanning’s mandated investigation into the booting of 22,000 wounded soldiers was initiated by an NPR and Colorado Public Radio expose last year that found the soldiers who were discharged -who were often stripped of some or all benefits- had mental health wounds or Traumatic Brain Injuries. In the aftermath of the news, 12 US Senators demanded Fanning investigate in order to “rectify this grave offense to the men and women that serve in our armed forces.”

While the most recent findings of aforementioned investigation are dated April 14th, the Army has only recently released the report.

According to the report, “the Army remains confident in the administrative processes that define misconduct separation procedures,” arguing that the Army has followed a 2009 law to the letter- and that both Army auditors and the Inspector General took part in the investigation.

The “2009 law” in question requires commander to evaluate two issues when considering kicking a soldier for misconduct: whether or not the soldier has PTSD/TBI and if said soldier has been deployed in the past two years prior to the incident.

Placing strict emphasis on the law, the Army’s report went on to say that only 3,327 soldiers in the 22,000 that were kicked had met that legal test. That leaves 19,000 or so soldiers out, all of which had mental health issues or brain injuries.

Broder said that by focusing their attention on the law itself (rather than the reason the law is in place), the Army’s ruling makes no medical sense and shows a lack of commitment to helping soldiers with non-visible wounds.

“It’s mind boggling to exclude people because they don’t have one of those two diagnoses,” Broder said. “Our experience at the Soldiers Project is that at least half, maybe more than that, of the people who call us with mental health problems following their service have anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol problems, all of which directly flow from their experiences in combat.”

However, PTSD and TBIs don’t always paint a full picture. In Army records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the records show that most of the 22,000 troops booted by the Army for misconduct had been diagnosed with other illnesses such as “anxiety disorder,” “adjustment disorder” or “mood disorder.”

Senator Murphy is abhorred by the practice and demands reforms.

“What a moral injustice it continues to be to have so many soldiers with mental illnesses and brain injuries connected to their service who are being discharged and made ineligible [for benefits],” said Murphy.

Another issue is the type of discharges many of the soldiers received. While the Army insists through clever wording that the soldiers were given honorable discharges, 96% of the soldiers were in fact given general discharges, which often could interfere with being hired in the civilian world.

It’s “completely misleading,” said Colby Vokey, a former Marine Corps attorney who’s now in private practice. “A general discharge has a very negative effect on soldier. It often carries a stigma.”

While general discharges can receive VA care, they cannot get benefits under the GI Bill. Worse, it can single a servicemember out for exclusion from certain jobs.

“I have a client right now who’s a soldier,” Vokey said. “He wants to get into law enforcement or corrections. He’s applied to a number of police departments and because of the general discharge, they won’t hire him.”

While the Army may feel their job is done in regards to the controversy, many politicians and advocates say that the battle over kicking soldiers for mental health-related misconduct is far from over.

“The only way we can really find out how the Army is treating wounded soldiers is by forming an independent third-party commission and conducting a genuine investigation,” soldier’s rights advocate Andrew Pogany says. “As long as Army officials investigate themselves, we’ll just hear what those officials want to tell us.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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