July 21, 2013 Updated: July 21, 2013 at 7:15 am
Recently, as the House Armed Services Committee was writing the initial draft of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act - the annual defense bill - I came across a highly informative piece of investigative journalism in The Gazette entitled "Other Than Honorable" which effectively captured what is unfortunately an all too familiar occurrence in the military,
The report describes how the number of soldiers discharged from the Army for misconduct has risen to its highest rate in recent years and provides several examples of wounded combat troops who have lost their medical care and other veterans benefits because of other-than-honorable discharges. Those who lose such benefits have a difficult time getting treatment for their grievous bodily injuries and/or service-connected mental disorders. Without such benefits these veterans can find themselves destitute, with nowhere to turn.
The investigative report is based on Army data which found that annual misconduct discharges have increased more than twenty-five percent in since 2009, mirroring the rise in wounded. It studied soldiers who have served multiple tours and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Some soldiers were cut loose for minor offenses the Army acknowledges can be symptoms of PTSD and TBI.
One particularly poignant example is of a wounded combat soldier at Fort Carson who suffered from regular seizures from a traumatic brain injury after a bomb blast in Afghanistan. The soldier was discharged for a pattern of misconduct that included missing medical appointments and going AWOL for two weeks. But because his other-than-honorable discharge barred him from veterans' benefits, he became homeless and relied on the local emergency room for care.
As a former soldier and Marine, as a veteran, and as a member of Congress who serves on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees, I am committed to ensuring all veterans - especially our wounded warriors - are taken care of after they return from combat. We must keep the faith with those who have sacrificed for our country. After reading several of the cases described in the report, I decided we need to fix something that is neither right nor fair.
That is why I introduced legislation to address this subject - to learn more about what is behind the increasing number of service members with PTSD and TBI being dismissed from the military for incidents of minor misconduct which often times stems directly from their service-connected mental disorder. My amendment is part of the defense bill, which passed the House of Representatives recently.
The first step mandated by this legislation is the establishment of a commission to conduct a comprehensive study of whether the Department of Defense's mechanisms for disciplinary action adequately address the impact of service-connected mental disorders and TBI on the basis for the disciplinary action; and whether the disciplinary mechanisms should be revisited in light of new information regarding the connection between PTSD, TBI, and behavioral problems. In other words, are commanders and is the military legal system properly assessing the connection between service-connected mental disorders and behavioral issues? While good order and discipline must be maintained - it is a cornerstone of military life - our uniformed leaders must not be too quick to dismiss from duty those service members whose acts of minor misconduct may actually stem from injuries they sustained during combat.
The commission that will study this issue and recommend policy options will be made up of people with expertise in service-connected mental disorders, PTSD, TBI, psychiatry, behavioral health, neurology, as well as disciplinary matters and military justice.
I hope my colleagues in the Senate will support this bill. It is an important step toward ensuring those men and women who serve in combat are treated with the care and respect they deserve.
U.S. Representative Mike Coffman is a Marine Corps combat veteran with a combined 21 years of military service.