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Senator seeks investigation of concerns raised by Gazette

The Gazette editorial Published: November 10, 2013 0

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet took action last week to help veterans still struggling after their service to our country.

As we rightly honor our veterans on Monday, Bennet also deserves praise for submitting a bill calling for a federal investigation on behalf of vets with invisible wounds suffered during combat.

Bennet read The Gazette series "Other Than Honorable" carefully and also convened a task force that found similar issues with our returning vets before submitting the bill. The Gazette series, by reporter Dave Philipps, showed a sharp increase in the number of soldiers discharged for minor misconduct. The discharges correlate with the military's need to downsize. Since 2009, minor misconduct discharges have surged 25 percent.

The series showed many of the discharged troops had "invisible injuries," including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries that may have caused their behaviors. Often they were discharged in a manner that left them homeless and without standard veteran benefits.

Further Gazette investigations showed the military's medical commander mistakenly assumed troops were being screened to ensure that no one with invisible injuries was being kicked out. As the investigation revealed, Army screenings do not look at the connection between a soldier's condition and misconduct.

"The Gazette deserves huge credit for elevating the dialogue and illuminating the issues," Bennet said.

The bill Bennet sponsored directs the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to look at four issues, including whether the armed forces have processes to assess the effect of combat injuries on conduct and how the military ensures that the processes are followed. Other issues the bill instructs the GAO to investigate include: 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 they're kicked out and how many are barred from Veterans Affairs benefits; and whether troops are informed they will lose VA benefits if they agree to leave the military in lieu of trial by court-martial.

If attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, as expected, the bill could be voted on in the next two weeks. A House version of the bill was introduced by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and passed in June.

Americans value the men and women who risk their lives to defend this country and its way of life. In the past decade, they have taken to thanking veterans for their service when encountering them in public. On Monday, we will formally acknowledge them with a federal holiday.

But we must do more than thank them. We must vigilantly protect promises our country has made to them if we want to maintain the greatest military the world has seen. We must make certain the government treats our veterans with the dignity, care and respect they earned when they dropped everything - often leaving jobs, spouses, children and beloved hometowns - to defend the rest of us in leading prosperous and comfortable lives.

In demanding an investigation of concerns raised by The Gazette, Sen. Bennet and Rep. Coffman have used their positions of influence to protect the interests of constituents who keep this country safe and free.

Veterans Day reminds of the sacrifices that veterans take in serving our nation. They deserve a free press and a Congress that defends their interests long after they have served. The American way of life depends on it.

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