November 7, 2013 Updated: November 7, 2013 at 8:18 am
Concerned over the plight of injured combat veterans, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet plans to introduce a bill Thursday ordering a federal investigation into whether the armed services kick wounded troops out of the military for behavior that could be related to their injuries.
"Right now, policy is being formed by anecdote and that is not good enough for our veterans. We really need to know what is going on," said Bennet, a Democrat. "We want to know if there is a protocol, if it is a right one, and if it is executed in an effective way."
An investigation by The Gazette in May showed that as the military downsizes, the number of soldiers discharged for minor misconduct had surged 25 percent since 2009. The investigation showed many troops had so-called "invisible injuries" including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury that could have caused their bad behavior. But they were discharged in ways that stripped them of veterans benefits, leaving some struggling and others homeless.
In addition, The Gazette showed that the Pentagon's medical commander wrongly assumed troops are being screened to ensure that no one with invisible injuries is unfairly kicked out. In fact, Army screenings do not look at the connection between a soldier's injury and his or her misconduct.
"The Gazette deserves huge credit for elevating the dialogue and illuminating the issues," Bennet said.
He also credited a veterans task force he convened this year, which produced similar findings.
"We spoke with veterans all over Colorado and got their impression of what was important, this bill reflects that," Bennet said.
The bill directs the Government Accountability Office - the investigative arm of Congress - to look at four issues:
- Whether the armed forces have processes in place to assess the impact of combat injuries on conduct and how the military ensures that the processes are followed.
- Whether commanders, junior officers and noncommissioned officers have proper training to recognize these injuries in troops.
- Whether troops discharged for misconduct get treatment for combat injuries before being kicked out and how many are barred from receiving Veterans Affairs benefits as a result of misconduct discharges.
- Whether troops are informed they will lose VA benefits if they agree to leave the military in lieu of trial by court-martial, a process known in the Army as Chapter 10.
Because the GAO investigation is in the form of a bill, rather than a letter from a lawmaker, it becomes a top priority of the office.
Bennet's bill likely will be attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the nation's military. The act is expected to be voted on by the Senate in the next two weeks.
The House version of the act, passed in June, includes an amendment by Rep. Mike Coffman of suburban Denver that would order congressional hearings on the issue of misconduct discharges of wounded veterans. Coffman, an Iraq War veteran and a Republican, credited The Gazette for bringing the issue to his attention, calling the paper's findings on mistreatment of veterans "seriously disturbing."
Bennet said the GAO investigation, which would take several months, would inform Congress and the military about potential fixes.
"This is the data we need to make good choices," he said. "Twenty-two veterans take their life every day in this country. That is what spurred our interest in this issue. They deserve better."
Contact Dave Philipps: 636-0238