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Gazette Premium Content Congress eyes changes to military discipline

By Dave Philipps Updated: June 7, 2013 at 6:25 am

Congress moved Wednesday to review and possibly overhaul the military discipline system to keep wounded combat troops from being discharged for bad behavior related to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other war wounds.

Rep. Mike Coffman, a Denver-area Republican who is on the House Armed Services Committee, introduced an amendment to the 2014 Defense Authorization Act that would create a 10-member Commission on Military Behavioral Health and Disciplinary Issues.

The commission would study whether the military discipline system needs to change in light of emerging research on the connection between PTSD and TBI and behavioral problems that can get troops in trouble.

The House Armed Services Committee also voted late Wednesday to change current military regulations to require all service members facing court-martial to first have a medical evaluation for PTSD and TBI.

The Defense Authorization Act is expected to pass in the House of Representatives, a spokesman for Coffman said, and the amendments are likely to become law.

Coffman said his amendment came in response to a three-day series of stories in The Gazette last month detailing how the number of soldiers discharged from the Army for misconduct has surged 67 percent since 2009 at posts with the most combat troops.

Factors driving the surge in discharges, including those at Fort Carson, include requirements to reduce the Army by at least 80,000 troops by 2017. Soldiers who have been discharged include wounded combat veterans who are denied medical care and other benefits because of the character of their discharge.

"The Gazette's investigation brought the issues to my attention," said Coffman, an Iraq War veteran who represents the suburbs east of Denver. "There is a problem. We need to analyze the problem and take action."

Historically, he said, the military has reduced the force after major conflicts, but in the past it provided incentives to get troops out.

"Now it seems they are getting kicked out instead," he said. "To give these people who have served our country an other-than-honorable discharge that denies them benefits and stigmatizes them for the rest of their lives seems like the totally wrong approach."

Coffman's amendment calls for the commission of experts on PTSD, TBI and the military justice system to be formed within 30 days and gives the commission power to hold hearings on the matter. The commission is required to report its findings and recommendations to the president and Congress by June 30. Coffman vowed to make corrective changes to the law once the commission reports its findings.

Michael Zacchea of Veterans for Common Sense, a national advocacy group, said he hoped the commission would call for a review of all discharges since 2003.

Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, added the amendment requiring troops facing court-marital to have an evaluation for TBI and PTSD. Regulations now require no screening. Wilson said he was spurred to act by The Gazette series shown to him by Rep. Doug Lamborn, the El Paso County Republican. Both are on the House Armed Services Committee.

"We made changes to be sure people get the evaluation they deserve," said Wilson, who has four sons who have deployed.

The House of Representatives will vote on the Defense Authorization Act next week. An Army spokesman in Washington said the service does not comment on pending legislation.

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Contact Dave Philipps

636-0238

 

 

The congressional commission

- Ten experts will be appointed within a month of passage of the bill. Two will be appointed by the president. Two will be appointed by the Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Two will be appointed by the ranking Democrat of the House Armed Services Committee. Two will be appointed by the Democrat chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And two will be appointed by the ranking Republican of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

-They will consider whether the military discipline system needs reforms to address the impact of service-connected injuries such as PTSD and TBI.

- They may hold hearings and collect information from the Department of Defense.

- They are to report their findings to Congress and the President by June 30, 2014.

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