Vets who aren't treated, but then discharged are harmed twice
Too many of our combat veterans return home to find themselves needing help that often just isn’t there. To make matters worse, nearly 22 veterans commit suicide every day — a number that is far too high. What should be a core competency of the Department of Veterans Affairs continually fails those who fought for us. As a Marine Corps combat veteran and the only member of Congress to serve in both Iraq wars, I’ve dedicated myself in Congress to ensuring all of our combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges receive the help they need and deserve.
I know, firsthand, the difficulties combat veterans can experience when they try to reintegrate into civilian life too quickly. In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, a Navy psychologist visited our Marine Corps unit while we were in Kuwait. He warned us of the challenges we would likely face as soon as we were reunited with our families and were returned to civilian life.
He accurately described us as having become members of a highly interdependent combat team and, after having been together for months in a stressful environment, we had become emotionally bonded in ways that only combat veterans can comprehend.
The psychologist predicted that when we would be separated for the first time, some of us were likely to experience severe depression. I did find myself severely depressed with the abrupt transition back to civilian life, but the psychologist’s warnings helped me get through it by understanding what I was facing and why. Many combat veterans face the cold reality of isolation and depression after returning home.
Several years ago, I discovered a troubling trend: Many troops who performed admirably during their combat deployments were later administratively discharged from the military for relatively minor infractions. Frequently, this misconduct closely mirrors indicators of PTSD, such as angry outbursts, substance abuse or difficulty in completing tasks.
These same soldiers often receive “bad paper,” or less-than-honorable discharges from the military. Adding insult to injury, after being stripped of their honor by military, they are denied access to vital VA mental health care and other benefits as a result of their discharge.
In other words, troops can develop PTSD while deployed in a combat zone and then get kicked out of the military as a result of combat-related PTSD. A 2012 article in the U.S. Army’s Military Law Review went so far as to state, “enough data now exists to conclude that the military has essentially criminalized mental illness — and a very predictable type of military illness at that.”
In response, I’ve worked in Congress to give these veterans a fair opportunity to upgrade their military discharges. In 2014, I put forward a legislative provision in the House of Representatives requiring the military’s discharge review boards to include input from mental health professionals related to a combat veteran’s PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Although this reform became law, many deserving veterans were still being denied a discharge upgrade and earned VA benefits.
Earlier this year, I introduced the Fairness for Veterans Act (H.R. 4683) with Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and a dedicated group of other veterans serving in Congress. This bill would make it easier for veterans suffering from service-connected mental health problems tied to “less-than-honorable” discharges to challenge, and possibly upgrade, their discharges.
A few months later, I successfully pressed for the inclusion of similar language in the House Armed Services Committee’s National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate’s version of the NDAA includes comparable language, so I am very confident that when we return to vote on the final version of the NDAA, this provision will be signed into law.
While my colleagues and I in Congress worked to advance this legislation on Capitol Hill, veterans across the country also mobilized. A letter sent to Congress, jointly signed by over 40 veterans’ organizations, urged adoption of the Fairness for Veterans Act reforms in the NDAA. With so much support from those who have served this country in uniform, we are well positioned to send this reform to the president’s desk.
Servicemembers who perform their duties in combat should have full access to vitally needed — and earned — benefits from the VA. Increasing access to mental health care is a critical step to combating the current veteran suicide epidemic — and in the case of veterans with combat-related mental health problems, access to these services will be life-saving.
Mike Coffman, a Republican who represents Colorado‘s 6th congressional district, is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where he is chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.