Updated: June 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm
The Gazette was honored to receive the Pulitzer Prize after reporter Dave Philipps exposed unfair discharges of veterans suffering mental health conditions resulting from service. While the Pulitzer is journalism's highest prize, most reporters, editors and photographers know of a far greater reward than professional recognition. Their greatest satisfaction is change that results from lighting little candles in the shrines of understanding and truth.
An unofficial creed of the journalist says to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." It's only half right. Nothing is gained by gratuitously afflicting the comfortable. Much is gained by comforting the afflicted.
Philipps and colleagues did not produce the "Other than Honorable" series to despair powerful military brass or win a trophy. They were motivated by concern for desperate men who reported getting punished for injuries suffered while serving their country. They felt an obligation to tell the stories of fellow human beings, creating a public hearing for those who thought they had exhausted all options and would not be heard. In presenting these grievances, Gazette staffers hoped the comfortable might help the afflicted.
Today, these former servicemen no longer suffer in silence. The exposé initiated discussions at the Pentagon and in Congress, where men and women in comfort will not stand for dismissive treatment of veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Marine combat veteran, added a measure last week to the House of Representatives version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment, and an identical Senate version, should protect injured service personnel from unfair discharges that deprive them of health care and other benefits they have earned.
If passed and signed into law, service members discharged for misconduct will have the right to appeal to clinical psychologists, psychiatrists or physicians with special mental health training. Mental health professionals will determine whether to recommend discharges for mental health reasons, rather than misconduct. A medical discharge is not "Other than Honorable" and does not deprive a veteran of benefits.
We hope the law does two things: 1. Gives legally protected redress to veterans who believe they've been treated unfairly; and 2. Creates more incentive for officers to consider the possibility of service-related mental conditions before imposing discharges on a basis of misconduct.
"As a Marine Corps combat veteran I cannot accept the fact that combat veterans have been discharged who were clearly suffering from PTSD and that they were not only denied treatment before being discharged, but because of the type of discharge they received, did not have access to mental health care after they left the military," said Coffman, R-Colo., who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The amendment is not a panacea, and our military will never be perfect. We need more than this provision to protect the dignity of our vets. But the proposal is a positive move. If passed, which is likely, it will give hope and opportunity where there had been none.
We are fortunate laws protect whistle-blowers and journalists who expose atrocious practices in government. We are just as fortunate to have Coffman and others in positions of power who won't stand for mistreatment of the afflicted - especially those who have risked their lives to defend the interests of everyone else.