Column by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman
Today, thousands of servicemen and servicewomen and recent military veterans have seen combat on multiple deployments. Many have seen their buddies killed or witnessed death up close. Many have also been wounded and had to endure extended and frequently painful and difficult recoveries. These are the types of events that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and other types of mental illness.
It is absolutely vital that we as a nation address the twin crisis of veteran suicide and mental health issues. That’s why I have introduced two bills that will improve access to mental health services for our combat veterans, specifically those combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD who are separated from service with a less-than-honorable discharge due to misconduct attributable to their mental health issues.
Often, PTSD symptoms lead to inappropriate behaviors that result in an “other than honorable” discharge. Such a discharge can disqualify these combat veterans for subsequent VA benefits. Since 2001, more than 100,000 veterans have left the military with a less-than-honorable discharge, or “bad paper” discharge. It is estimated that as many as 22,000 of these discharges may to be attributable to PTSD.
The Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a program to provide initial mental health assessments and urgent healthcare services to combat veterans at risk of suicide or harming others, even if they have a “bad paper” discharge.
The Fairness for Veterans Act is a complementary bill, which ensures the most vulnerable veteran population receives the care and benefits they have earned. Currently, combat veterans with a less-than-honorable discharge may not be eligible for a broad range of health care and benefits, including critical mental health care services. In the case of combat veterans with severe depression and other problems, these benefits may be life-saving. When our combat veterans return to the civilian world and reach out for help — the VA must reach back.
Addressing this issue is a bipartisan effort and, as a combat veteran myself, I am proud to have support from both Republicans and Democrats on these bills as well as a number of veteran service organizations.
Increasing access to mental health care services is a critical step to combating PTSD. Tragically, 22 veterans die from suicide each day. This number is far too high. My goal is for all veterans to receive the access to the quality mental health care they earned.