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PTSD may affect benefits for sailors, Marines kicked out of military

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 2, 2016

Sailors and Marines who are kicked out of the military for misconduct now may be eligible for disability benefits if they've been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or any other mental health condition that contributed to their behavior, under an order signed Wednesday by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

The order is the first of its type in the military and serves as another acknowledgment that many servicemembers return home from combat with invisible psychological wounds that affect their daily lives.

"For more than a decade, we've asked a tremendous amount of our people and their families," Mabus said in a statement. "In turn, we have a responsibility to support their needs, whether they are serving the Navy and Marine Corps mission around the globe or transitioning from uniformed service to civilian life."

It wasn't immediately clear how many people the order might affect.

About 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan suffer PTSD in a given year, according to statistics from the National Center for PTSD.

More than 46,000 cases of traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI, have been diagnosed in the Navy since 2000, while more than 49,000 cases have been diagnosed in Marines, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Most of those diagnoses are for a mild form of TBI known as a concussion.

TBI occurs when there is a blow to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain. TBI can be caused by explosions, assaults, falls or a myriad other ways. Emotional symptoms can include depression, anxiety and irritability, while cognitive symptoms can include slowed thinking, attention and concentration problems, and memory gaps.

In some cases, repeated blows to the head can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive neurological disorder associated with communication problems, motor disorders, problems with impulse control, depression, confusion and irritability, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Previously, misconduct took precedence over diagnosed mental health conditions during a servicemember's separation, according to the Navy.

Under Mabus' order, sailors and Marines who suffer from PTSD, TBI or any other mental condition who did not receive an honorable discharge may have that decision reviewed.

For current personnel facing discharges that aren't honorable, the case must be referred to the first general officer in Marines or flag officer in the the Navy in the chain of command for a final determination.

Mabus signed the order while visiting a veterans family clinic in New York that focuses on PTSD.

"Keeping faith with veterans under all circumstances is our solemn vow," Mabus said. "It is vitally important to address those service members whose separation is a result of PTSD/TBI."

Mabus' order came the same day Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said new TBI examinations would be offered to 24,000 veterans whose initial examination for TBI wasn't conducted by a designated medical specialist, allowing them to have their claims reprocessed.

"Traumatic Brain Injury is a signature injury in Veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan," McDonald said in a statement. "Providing support for veterans suffering from a TBI is a priority and a privilege, and we must make certain they receive a just and fair rating for their disabilities."
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