About a fifth of U.S. troops kicked out of the military since 2011 had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress or brain injuries, a report by the Government Accountability Office found.
The report found that another 46 percent of troops kicked out of the service had been diagnosed with a wide array of other behavior problems from alcohol abuse to "adjustment disorders," a term the military has long used to describe new enlistees who can't fit in.
The report was ordered by Congress after a Gazette investigation found that dozens of Fort Carson soldiers suffering the mental wounds of war were given disciplinary discharges for minor misconduct that stripped them of their veterans benefits. The Gazette's investigation earned the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
"Our analysis of DOD data shows that 91,764 service members were separated for misconduct from fiscal years 2011 through 2015; of these service members, 57,141 - 62 percent - had been diagnosed within the 2 years prior to their separation with PTSD, TBI, or certain other conditions that could be associated with misconduct," the agency said in its report.
The most common issue found by the agency was adjustment disorder, which was involved in more than a third of misconduct separations. The term is catch-all for otherwise unexplained psychological responses to stress and is most commonly used to kick out new enlistees.
Close behind was alcohol abuse, which played a role in 29 percent of misconduct discharges. Drug abuse played a role in a fifth of discharges and anxiety disorders played a role in 17 percent, the agency found.
Post-traumatic stress and brain injuries tied to misconduct discharges have raised concern among federal lawmakers who question whether veterans were being punished for their hidden wounds of war.
The GAO report issued Tuesday found that less than a quarter of misconduct discharges got veterans tagged with "other than honorable" status, which removes most veterans benefits.
The bulk of the misconduct cases - 71 percent - were handled with "general" discharges, which leave all VA benefits intact, except for college tuition programs.
Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and others in congress have pushed the Department of Veterans Affairs this year to open mental health care to all veterans regardless of their discharge status.
Last month, the VA pledged to give all combat veterans crisis care without regard to their discharges.
The Pentagon howled over the GAO report. In a letter, David Smith, the Defense Department civilian in charge of health care, accused the watchdog agency of double-counting discharges and including health conditions not tied to misconduct.
"The combined effect of the large error in the separations data reported, the number of unique service members with PTSD and/or TBI, and the inclusion of mental health conditions in the separations cohort that are not credibly associated with misconduct is substantial," Smith wrote in response to the report.
The Pentagon agreed, though, with most of agency's recommendations, which include closer monitoring of the service branches to ensure they follow proper procedures to screen troops from post-traumatic stress and brain injury.
The GAO report is now in the hands of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, which ordered the probe.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240