Congress needs to take responsibility to address veteran suicide for those at risk

Congress needs to take responsibility to address veteran suicide for those at risk
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There are few things more humiliating for a service member than to survive a suicide attempt. I learned this 10 years ago when I woke up handcuffed to a gurney, surrounded by doctors and police, while a staff sergeant who I’d spent a year in Iraq with looked at me with disgust.

My downward spiral had been obvious to those to close me as I lashed out at them and isolated myself, but I had hidden my severe depression from nearly all the men that I was serving with. As a 21-year-old sergeant, I didn’t understand my own diagnoses, and I certainly didn’t expect my commander to.

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And he didn’t, which is why I was kicked out of the Army with a “bad-paper discharge” shortly after trying to take my own life.

 

I spent the next five years almost completely isolated from the veterans community — partly because of my own embarrassment of having been kicked out, but also because most veterans’ organizations wouldn’t even allow me to join their membership.

It’s tough to put your life back together when you feel ostracized, battling post-traumatic stress disorder, and your discharge disqualifies you from critical transition benefits such as the GI Bill.

Yet, this is the status quo for the tens of thousands of veterans with PTSD and related mental-health conditions whose discharges lead them to a denial of healthcare at the VA.

“We are going to go and start providing mental health care to those with other-than-honorable discharges,” Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinVeterans group sues to block advisers known as ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ from influencing VA Mar-a-Lago insiders provided input on VA policy, personnel decisions: report Ahead of speech, Kansas City newspaper urges Trump to listen to veterans MORE testified to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on March 7, signaling an acknowledgment that the VA had a responsibility to these veterans. “I don’t want to wait. We want to start doing that.”

After the surprise announcement, Shulkin’s staff scrambled to implement the plan, which was rolled out nationally on July 5. Between the announcement and implementation, they shared documents with advocates revealing that roughly 505,000 American veterans are denied comprehensive care by the VA because of their characterization of discharge. The VA was finally acknowledging the magnitude of this grave issue.

Rather than providing the full array of care and benefits as intended by the 1944 GI Bill of Rights to all of those who served on active duty discharged “under conditions other than dishonorable,” the VA has been denying important services to the veterans who need them most.

Veterans with bad paper are more likely to suffer from untreated physical and mental health conditions, battle substance abuse, face unemployment, experience homelessness, and ultimately, die by suicide.

“Conditions other than dishonorable” is now broadly interpreted to deny VA access to hundreds of thousands veterans whose conduct didn’t warrant punishment as severe as a dishonorable discharge. Harry Colmery, former American Legion National Commander and main drafter of GI Bill once said of the phrase, “frankly, we use it because we are seeking to protect the veteran against injustice...We do not use the words ‘under honorable conditions’ because we are trying to give the veteran the benefit of the doubt, for we think he is entitled to it.”

But the VA isn’t the only institution to blame for leaving some veterans behind. The congressional authors of the Post-9/11 GI Bill made only those who receive an honorable discharge eligible for one of the most important transition benefits available to this generation.

As a result, 12 percent of troops who left the service between fiscal 2011 and 2015 can’t use the GI Bill for school.

Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars recently convened a panel of experts on the topic of bad-paper on Capitol Hill. In front of an audience of congressional aides, Dr. Randall Williamson of the Government Accountability Office discussed his recently issued report, which concluded that 62 percent of those kicked out with bad paper in recent years were separated after being diagnosed with a mental-health condition. “We looked into whether the Army and Marine Corps were adhering to their own policies regarding screening for PTSD and TBI,” Randall said, “and the short answer is ‘no.’"

Unfortunately, without support from Congress, Shulkin was forced to take a step back from what advocates expected after his public declaration. In practice, care to those with other than honorable discharges would be provided only on a “tentative” basis, and restricted to cases of “emergency.”

Experts on suicide prevention know that the VA can’t reduce suicide by waiting until a veteran is ready to swallow a handful of pills or put a gun in their mouth before offering help. Yet, Congress has been hesitant to ask taxpayers to bear the burden of taking care of the most vulnerable volunteers.

September is Suicide Prevention Month, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is promoting their #BeThere campaign, encouraging veterans, their friends and families to offer assistance to those experiencing hard times.

But the secretary of the VA will need resources to invest in VA’s infrastructure if we want to be there for our forgotten veterans, and it’ll take an act of Congress to bring the Post-9/11 GI Bill in line with Commander Colmery’s original GI Bill of Rights.

If Congress is going to “be there,” they’ll need more than hashtags. They need hearings to investigate how to solve this bad-paper problem.

Kristofer Goldsmith is an Iraq Veteran, the founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, and Assistant Director for Policy and Government Affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America.