As many as 31,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans nationwide may have been improperly discharged for personality or adjustment disorders, even though they may be suffering from service-connected disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the signature injury of the wars.
Federal legislation supported by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., would make it easier for those veterans to correct a misdiagnosis and qualify for the Veterans Affairs benefits.
"Now more than ever, we need to make sure our military policies address a growing prevalence of service-related mental health problems and reflect the changing face of what it means to be injured in combat," said Klobuchar, a co-author of the bill with Sen. John Tester, D-Mont.
At a Monday news conference at the Ramsey County Veterans Services Department, Klobuchar and Walz spoke about the importance of correcting the problem. Walz, a 24-year Army National Guard veteran, has introduced similar legislation in the House.
"These misdiagnoses are clearly the wrong way to go about it," said Walz. "These people, these warriors, deserve the opportunity to have a fair recourse."
The bill would change where a veteran would go for a review and change the burden of proof on establishing a disability. The current organization, the Board of Corrections of Military Records, is largely focused on administrative errors and puts the burden for the evidence on the veteran. The legislation would shift responsibility for reviews to the Physical Disability Board of Review, which focuses on medical information provided by the VA and the Department of Defense.
The change would have an impact on female service members who have been misdiagnosed at a higher rate, particularly after reporting sexual assaults in the service.
Veterans discharged after being diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder are ineligible for health care and disability payments through the VA. They also lose hiring priorities and any retirement or disability payments.
A 2012 Yale University study found that as many as 31,000 Iraq and Afghanistan service members were discharged because of pre-existing disorders and that as many as 60 percent of the discharges failed to follow proper procedures, meaning the veteran may not have been diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist.
The bill would allow a veteran to challenge a diagnosis through an independent psychologist or psychiatrist. It's unclear how many veterans in Minnesota might have been affected by improper diagnoses. But Ramsey County Veterans Services Officer Maria Wetherall said the current way "can be excruciating, long, complex bureaucratic processes, and often the outcome for the veteran is negative. "
The legislation focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.