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Congressman seeks better mental health care for vets

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DEVIN N. BOYER/U.S. AIR FORCE

By MARK BRUNSWICK | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Tribune News Service | Published: March 15, 2016

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and several of his colleagues have introduced legislation aimed at ensuring veterans have access to the mental health care treatment they need.

The issue has been thrust to the forefront as more veterans with obvious medical histories of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries have been improperly discharged for minor misconduct rather than receiving a medical discharge or being retained in the military for treatment and rehabilitation.

The Fairness for Veterans Act ensures that combat veterans, whose condition should have been considered before their discharge, receive due consideration in their discharge appeals.

“After fighting for our country overseas, our warriors shouldn’t be discharged from the military without proper diagnosis or left without the care they need to reintegrate into the lives they once knew,” Walz, a 24-year veteran of the Army National Guard, said in a statement.

“We must act to ensure these brave men and women, suffering from invisible wounds, have the care and benefits they have earned.”

The proposed legislation creates a presumption in favor of the combat veteran during the post-discharge appeals process. If a veteran was deployed to a combat zone and diagnosed by a mental health professional as experiencing PTSD or TBI as a result of their deployment, the military’s Discharge Review Boards must consider this diagnosis with a rebuttable presumption in favor of the veteran.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD affects nearly 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, as many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and 20 percent of Iraq war veterans.

Since 2001, more than 300,000 people, about 13 percent of all troops, have been forced out of the military with less-than-honorable discharges.

As first reported by the publication Military Times, the move could affect thousands of military discharges each year. Army officials have confirmed that at least 22,000 combat veterans have received less-than-honorable discharges since 2009, many for minor offenses like alcohol use or lateness. For some members of combat forces, those infractions are a sign of untreated issues such as PTSD and TBI.

A less-than-honorable discharge severely limits the options for health care and support for veterans. Veterans with less-than-honorable discharges lose education benefits, preferential hiring and tax breaks, and they can be barred from the veterans’ health care system.

“Too often, we see our men and women in uniform erroneously receiving an administrative discharge rather than an honorable discharge, due to the traumatic experiences that alter their behavior,” the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said in a letter supporting the legislation. It is also supported by veterans groups that include Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Military Times also reported the Pentagon may already be instituting some of the proposals in the legislation. In a memo signed in February but released in recent days, one Pentagon official expanded a 2014 decision by the department to ease the burden on veterans with PTSD and TBI seeking to upgrade unfavorable discharges.

The new memo expands the directive to all veterans. In the past, that decision covered only a select group of Vietnam veterans.

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