Mideast edition, Friday, July 27, 2007

WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers are pushing for an immediate halt to most military personality disorder discharges until a full review of the process can be completed.

On Tuesday, a group of Democratic and Republican House members introduced legislation to put a temporary hold on the dismissals until the mental health policies are reviewed and the Defense Department establishes an independent appeal board where troops can challenge those assessments.

“When determining whether one of our returning servicemen and women should be awarded compensation and benefits, I believe we need to err on the side of the veteran,” bill sponsor Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I am deeply troubled by a number of reports that seem to suggest the Pentagon is using personality disorder discharges to deny benefits to psychologically injured servicemembers.”

Lawmakers have been asking defense officials for more information on the discharges since last month, when news reports identified several soldiers diagnosed with pre-existing mental health problems after returning from combat tours. The move left them ineligible to receive veterans’ benefits despite their combat-related injuries.

Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on the issue on Wednesday, criticizing the Pentagon for shirking their duties to care for injured servicemembers.

Defense officials insist the diagnoses aren’t being used to drop troops from costly medical rehabilitation programs, but have stated they’re reviewing the process to make sure diagnoses are being applied properly.

More than 18,600 servicemembers have been discharged for pre-existing personality issues since the start of 2002, according to Pentagon statistics. But that number has remained relatively steady each year.

Last week a bipartisan group of senators led by presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill., worked to include the moratorium in the Senate’s version of the 2008 defense authorization bill. When negotiations on that stalled, Obama introduced the proposal as stand-alone legislation.

Both his and Hare’s bill would allow personality disorder discharges to go through despite the temporary halt if military officials can prove troops hid documented criminal or medical evidence of a serious mental health problem.

Hare said he would consider offering his bill as an amendment to a number of budget bills already before the House, in an effort to get the proposal enacted as quickly as possible.

“With the benefits of thousands of our wounded servicemembers in jeopardy, there is an urgent need for action,” he said.

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