GAO: Thousands discharged for military misconduct had mental health diagnosis

GAO: Thousands discharged for military misconduct had mental health diagnosis
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The top government watchdog said Tuesday that nearly a quarter of U.S. troops discharged for misconduct were given other-than-honorable discharges despite previously being diagnosed with a mental health condition.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its report faulted branches of the Department of Defense (DOD) for having policies inconsistent with — or poor enforcement of — official Pentagon rules for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or sexual trauma.

“As a result of policy inconsistencies and limited monitoring, DOD has little assurance that certain service members diagnosed with PTSD or TBI receive the required screening and counseling prior to being separated for misconduct and that all service members, including officers, have been trained on how to identify symptoms of mild TBI in the deployed setting,” the GAO wrote.

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“Unless the policy inconsistencies are resolved and routine monitoring is undertaken to ensure adherence, the risk increases that service members may be inappropriately separated for misconduct without adequate consideration of these conditions’ effects on behavior, separation characterization, or eligibility for VA benefits and services.”

The report bolsters arguments from veterans' advocates who have said that thousands have received “bad discharge papers” despite suffering from one of the conditions.

Such discharges haunt veterans for the rest of their lives, advocates say, by denying them veterans benefits and casting a stigma that can affect civilian life, such as finding employment.

According to the GAO, 57,141 of the 91,764 troops separated for misconduct from 2011 through 2015 had been diagnosed with PTSD, TBI or another condition at least two years before their discharge.

Of those with a diagnosis, 13,283, or about 23 percent, received other-than-honorable discharges.

Among the inconsistencies found by the GAO, the Navy does not require a medical exam for certain sailors being separated in lieu of court-martial to determine whether a PTSD or TBI diagnosis is a mitigating factor in the misconduct. Such an exam is Pentagon policy.

The Army and Marine Corps, meanwhile, may not follow to their own screening, training and counseling policies, according to the GAO.

In a written response included with the report, the Pentagon took issue with the “accuracy and clarity” of the data. For example, the response said, troops with both PTSD and TBI diagnoses were counted twice, and the GAO included other mental health disorders with little clinical or published research linking them to the type of misconduct that results in discharge.

“In combination, these errors greatly exaggerate the number of service member separated for misconduct that the GAO reports have been diagnosed with mental health conditions GAO proposes are associated with misconduct,” David Smith, acting assistant secretary of Defense for health, wrote. “As such, the inflated figures create the false impression that the majority of service members administratively separated for misconduct had psychological health conditions that would explain their misconduct.”

Vietnam Veterans of American called the GAO report “immensely disturbing” and again called on President Trump to pardon affected veterans.

“It’s horrific to think of these young men and women as statistics, but that’s what they’re becoming,” John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in a statement. “These are veterans who volunteered to serve in a time of war, yet they’ve been failed by previous administrations. They didn’t hesitate to run into battle. Our current commander-in-chief can’t hesitate now. President Trump has always supported our veterans, and we are confident that he will listen to our plea on behalf of these veterans.”