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Bill advances to give mental care to 'other than honorable' troops years after Gazette investigation

November 14, 2017 Updated: November 15, 2017 at 1:32 pm
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Kash Alvaro pauses when talking about his latest problems Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, at his Trinidad home. Alvaro's wife left with his children earlier in the month. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

A measure that would let all veterans suffering mental illness get government care, even if they were kicked out of the service, got unanimous support in the House and seems poised to become law.

The measure, penned by Aurora Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and inspired by a Gazette investigation that earned the Pulitzer Prize, is biggest step yet in addressing "other than honorable" discharges which saw some troops lose their Department of Veterans Affairs benefits over misconduct associated with war-caused mental illness.

The Gazette documented a rise in misconduct discharges for wounded and mentally ill troops, including an email sent between leaders at Fort Carson that encouraged use of other-than-honorable discharges to get soldiers out.

"What was so insidious about it all is the Army decided to thin its ranks using this process," Coffman said Tuesday.

Other than Honorable: The Gazette's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation

The measure is pending in the Senate. Coffman said the unanimous House vote should make it an easy sell to Senators. He's hoping for passage by the end of the year.

VA earlier this year voluntarily began offering emergency mental health services to troops with other-than-honorable discharges. The measure would make the agency offer full-spectrum mental health care, including long-term therapy for those with war-caused mental illness.

A study cited by Coffman shows that more than 60 percent of soldiers kicked out after 2011 with conduct-related discharges suffered some form of mental malady.

Over the 16 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is estimated that 20 percent of deployed troops come home with some form of mental illness including post-traumatic stress.

It was an issue that inspired Coffman, who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War with the Marine Corps and returned to Iraq with the Corps in 2005.

"My focus was on combat veterans," he said.

Progress, Setbacks: A followup of Other Than Honorable

Still pending in the House is another Coffman bill inspired, in part, by a Gazette story. Coffman's Veteran Overmedication Prevention Act of 2017 addresses VA missteps found in a 2017 Gazette investigation into the death of Colorado Springs Marine Veteran Noah Harter.

Harter died days after seeking VA help for suicidal thoughts. He was prescribed a powerful medication and given no follow-up.

The measure would require the VA to engage an outside agency to study veteran suicides and the agency's use of medications.

Coffman said Harter provides a case study in VA mistakes.

"He was not properly monitored and took his own life," Coffman said. "I feel that it is an easy out for the VA to give these veterans powerful drugs."

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx

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