Coast Guard Wrongly Discharged Members, Group Says

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- The U.S. Coast Guard routinely violates its procedures and regulations intended to protect service members from erroneous discharges for personality or adjustment disorders, a veterans group and Yale Law School students alleged Thursday.

Vietnam Veterans of America released a report based on an analysis by the students who looked at a random sample of 265 discharges for the disorders over a 12-year period ending Sept. 30, 2012. Of those, the students found 255 failed to comply with Coast Guard regulations in some way.

The violations can lead to veterans being denied benefits and stigma in finding work, the report says.

"We are disappointed to see that so many members of our Coast Guard have been illegally discharged and denied their rights," said Tom Berger, executive director of VVA's Veterans Health Council. "We are hopeful that this report will spark action to correct this injustice."

Jordan St. John, deputy chief of public affairs for the Coast Guard, said the Coast Guard hadn't seen the report and couldn't comment.

Personality disorder involves an enduring pattern of maladaptive behavior such as paranoia or anti-social behavior, while adjustment disorder is defined as a condition caused by abnormal response to stress.

Veterans cannot receive disability retirement pay for illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic injury that were incorrectly diagnosed as personality disorder, according to the report.

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School conducted the analysis for VVA, which obtained the records through a settlement of a lawsuit. Students are seeking similar records in litigation against other military branches.

The report was designed to provide an update and expand on a 2008 Government Accountability Office report of four military installations. The 2008 report found the four varied in compliance with requirements for personality disorder discharges.

The students sought a sample of one-third of the total discharges in the Coast Guard for personality disorder. The Coast Guard provided both personality and adjustment disorder discharges over the 12-year period, the report says. The records do not include the names of service members, and the students did not interview service members. Their findings were based on the documents.

The report says service members are supposed to be provided with detailed information about the reasons for their discharge and their rights and remedies, but the Coast Guard denied the information to most members discharged for the disorders. In 90 percent of cases, the Coast Guard did not include documentation notifying Guard members of their rights, according to the report, although members have a right to know they are being discharged because of a diagnosis of adjustment or personality disorder and to make a written statement and consult a military attorney.

The veterans group recommended a targeted intervention at the Cape May Training Center, where many of the discharges originated; identification and correction of past errors; and preventive action going forward.

Kendall Hoechst, one of the students, said the report is the first analysis of discharge practices across an entire service branch and the first to consider adjustment disorder discharges.

"Sadly, we found that illegal PD discharges continue in the Coast Guard and that the practice has spread to AD discharges as well," she said.

Total adjustment disorder discharges in the sample went from 0 to 1 per year before 2009, to 19 in 2009, 39 in 2010, 35 in 2011, and 29 in 2012, Hoechst said.

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