America's wounded warriors deserve better

by name Newspaper - Published: May 19, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Americans are a deeply divided people on many things these days. But there is one issue on which virtually all agree, and that is the nation's enduring obligation, as President Abraham Lincoln put it so eloquently in his second inaugural address, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

To that end, America spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year to provide our veterans with the finest medical care and a helping hand in pursuit of jobs, educations and homes. It is unlikely that any other nation has ever done so much to show its gratitude to those who have served in its military in war and peace. But serious injustices can still sometimes occur in the treatment of service men and women. Such an injustice has been found recently through the reporting of The Gazette's Dave Philipps.

This is an especially tough situation for senior military leaders who are being forced to make decisions with life-changing consequences, often without critically important medical knowledge or diagnostic tools. Even so, since there are always bad apples in any organization, commanders must be able to remove any individual who lowers the combat readiness of their units. Insuring combat readiness trumps every other military management consideration just as victory trumps every other strategic goal.

Thanks to the long years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of returning soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury and/or post-traumatic stress disorder has spiraled. The Department of Defense has spent more than $700 million in recent years studying the causes and cures for TBI and PTSD, which are estimated to affect more than half a million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Progress has been made, but much remains to be learned.

It's tough enough providing proper medical care for victims of TBI and PTSD, but these wounds have presented the military with another challenge from an unexpected direction. As Philipps reports, "the surge in troops returning with PTSD and TBI after more than a decade of war poses a problem for the military because their symptoms often include bad decision-making, frayed memory and incendiary anger, all of which can be indistinguishable from misconduct. With little guidance, commanders struggle to determine who is badly injured and who is just bad."

The result is a disturbing increase in the number of Marines and Army soldiers diagnosed with severe combat-related medical conditions who are nevertheless kicked out of the service via a bureaucratic technicality known as a Chapter 10. Their numbers are comparatively few, but the affects are no less catastrophic for the individuals involved because they often lose their right to medical care and other services to which veterans are normally entitled.

Philipps chronicles these personal tragedies through the eyes of three men, all decorated war veterans who served gallantly on multiple deployments but came home severely afflicted and eventually found themselves thrown to the street. As one of them told Philipps, "It was like my best friend betrayed me. I had given the Army everything, and they took everything away."

A Chapter 10 is an obscure regulation that allows the DOD to separate an individual for an alleged pattern of violations like being late to formation, missing prescribed medical appointments and showing disrespect to commanding officers, conduct which is often traceable to TBI and PTSD but which can also be a product of bad attitudes and lack of military discipline. The problem is that it can be all but impossible to tell which is which. Based on data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Philipps reports a 60 percent increase Army-wide in misconduct discharges since 2006. Unfortunately, there is no data for the frequency of Chapter 10s across the services.

Multiple factors appear to be converging to produce this result, including the massive increase in head injuries caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the rise in multiple deployments (it is not uncommon these days to encounter soldiers who have served four or five combat tours) and the lack of proven treatment protocols. Then there are the estimated $487 billion in military spending reductions imposed by President Barack Obama and Congress since 2009. The pressure to downsize the military is intense, and nobody should be surprised that soulless bureaucratic shortcuts like Chapter 10 discharges become too common in such an environment.

President Obama and Congress created this problem. Now it's time for them to do whatever is necessary to fix it. No soldier deserves less-than-honorable treatment after sustaining traumatic injuries while defending the common good. The United States and its Army are so much better than this.

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