A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators led by Senators Kit Bond (R-MO), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Barack Obama (D-IL), today asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to launch a full review of the personality disorder discharge process across the Armed Forces.
The Senators, who have been examining the mental health care treatment of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, recently became alarmed over reports about the inappropriate use of personality disorder discharges.
The use of a personality discharge can result in a loss of disability benefits and medical care from the VA, and can even lead to service members having to repay thousands of dollars in re-enlistment bonuses.
Bond, Boxer, Lieberman and Obama expressed concern with a process that is diagnosing thousands of service members with long and honorable military careers with "pre-existing" personality disorders that have only emerged after combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Recent reports about the abuse of personality disorder discharges are inexcusable. It is critical we act now and work to restore the confidence of our service members," said Senator Kit Bond. "The men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our nation - and our freedoms - deserve the highest quality care."
Sen. Boxer said, "It appears as if the military is using "personality disorder discharges' to avoid covering the healthcare needs of our service members, many of whom are suffering from PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is immoral and has to stop."
"We have an obligation to ensure that our service members are accurately diagnosed and treated for their psychological wounds," Senator Lieberman said. "We cannot afford to do anything less. I urge the Department of Defense to review its policies to ensure that service members are not being inappropriately discharged."
"Reports that the Department of Defense is abusing its personality discharge procedures are especially troubling given the thousands of American service members we know to be suffering from less visible, service-related psychological injuries," said Senator Obama. "The Department of Defense must conduct a comprehensive review of its personality disorder discharge procedures and its mental health care system, to ensure that service members who have risked everything and now suffer from a mental health condition receive the treatment, care, and benefits they deserve."
Bond, Boxer, Lieberman and Obama were joined by 26 of their Senate colleagues including: Max Baucus (D-MT), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Joseph Biden (D-DE), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Russell Feingold (D-WI), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), John Kerry (D-MA), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ken Salazar (D-CO), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), John Sununu (R-NH), Jon Tester (D-MT), Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Today, the Senators sent the following letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asking him to conduct an independent review of the discharge process, to implement appropriate measures to prevent abuse of the process, and to support the creation of a Special Discharge Review Board to assist in reviewing petitions from military personnel who have already been discharged for personality disorders and who have honorable service records in Iraq and Afghanistan:
The Honorable Dr. Robert M. Gates
Secretary of Defense
Washington, D.C. 20301
Dear Secretary Gates:
We urge you to conduct a thorough and independent review of the personality disorder discharge process across the Armed Forces. We are concerned over continuing reports from Veterans' Service Organizations, the media, and individual U.S. service personnel that personality disorder discharges have been implemented inappropriately and inconsistently. There are indications that personality disorder discharges are being used as a tool to discharge expeditiously U.S. service personnel who have service-connected injuries, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Even more troubling is the perception that the U.S. military is using these discharges to avoid disability and medical benefits payments.
The Washington Post deftly illustrated an example of this problem on June 17, 2007, in a piece entitled "The War Inside." According to the Post--after serving a combat tour in Iraq--Army Specialist Jeans Cruz returned to Ft. Hood, Texas, crippled by the mental anguish of his combat experience. Notes from his medical files indicate "major depression," and "anger from Iraq, nightmares, flashbacks." The Army was so concerned that it even went so far as to have Spc. Cruz sign a "Life Maintenance Agreement," a document stating that he agreed "not to harm himself or anyone else." But the Army ultimately discharged Spc. Cruz with a "personality disorder," in essence finding that Spc. Cruz's medical problems had nothing to do with his service in Iraq.
Since personality disorder discharges are considered "pre-existing," personnel discharged under these provisions cannot collect disability benefits and may not receive medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs for these "pre-existing" illnesses. Spc. Cruz experienced this first-hand. On August 16, 2006, Spc. Cruz received a letter from the VA stating that he had been denied disability pay.
To make matters worse, military personnel given a personality disorder discharge who have not fulfilled their service contracts can find themselves forced to repay thousands of dollars in re-enlistment bonuses back to the federal government. This can result in debilitating debt for military personnel and their families--many of whom supported our forces over many years of service and endured significant strain as a result of frequent and protracted combat deployments.
Defense Department records indicate that over 22,500 personality disorder discharges have been processed within the past six years. While this represents a small percentage of overall discharges, their inappropriate use and debilitating impact on personnel once discharged is cause for grave concern.
Another egregious example of misuse was chronicled by reporter Joshua Kors on March 29, 2007, in a piece entitled: "How Specialist Town Lost his Benefits." A copy of the article is attached for your review. On October 19, 2004, Spc. Jon Town was injured and sustained major loss of hearing in a rocket attack in Ramadi, Iraq. His injuries ultimately resulted in memory loss and depression, ending his military career. But instead of sending Spc. Town through the medical board process--an in-depth medical review of a service member's fitness that often results in the award of disability payments and allows injured personnel and their families to remain eligible for medical benefits after active service ends--the command at Ft. Carson, Colorado, elected to give Spc. Town a personality disorder discharge. This action deprived Spc. Town of disability benefits and guaranteed VA care for his injuries once he was discharged from the Army.
While the Army claims to have thoroughly evaluated and reviewed the Town case, we understand that neither Spc. Town nor his fellow soldiers, who were aware of the rocket attack and his resulting injuries, were contacted to discuss the case. Hence in this situation, and we fear potentially in others, the Army review was inadequate and anything but thorough. Consequently, serious questions remain unanswered about the use, or abuse, of the personality disorder discharge and a chain-of-command that allows the inappropriate use of the discharge to continue even as members of Congress from both parties seek to review the practice and the media points out the glaring inconsistencies in the manner in which the personality discharge is administered.
Like many veterans' advocates, we are skeptical about an administrative process that suddenly diagnoses military personnel who have long and honorable military careers, such as Spc. Cruz and Spc. Town, with pre-existing personality disorders that reportedly become apparent only after combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are particularly concerned that combat forces at the unit level and above are inadequately equipped to diagnose, treat, and work with personnel assessed with brain-related injuries, and that the mechanisms tasked with handling the discharge process and meeting unit manning requirements are also overwhelmed.
Therefore, we urge you to conduct a thorough and independent review of the personality discharge process and to implement appropriate measures to prevent the repeat of cases like Spc. Cruz's and Spc. Town's in the future. We also urge you to support the creation of a Special Discharge Review Board to assist the Board for Correction of Military Records for each service in reviewing petitions from personnel discharged for personality disorders with honorable service records in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the Walter Reed Army Medical Center hearings demonstrated, the American people will not tolerate substandard treatment and rehabilitative care for those who have served. As members of the United States Senate, we have an obligation to ensure that our service personnel and their families receive the benefits and care they are entitled to. We are eager to work with the Department of Defense on the issues we have outlined and look forward to hearing from you. Should your staff have additional questions, please direct them to James Pitchford of Sen. Bond's staff or Ann Norris of Sen. Boxer's staff.