U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet hopes a pair of studies due in 2017 will give lawmakers a better view of how the Army is treating its troops.
The reviews by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Defense Inspector General will examine whether the Army improperly discharges soldiers for misconduct driven by war-caused mental illness. The GAO report was ordered last year after a series of Gazette stories revealed that the Army was discharging wounded and mentally ill soldiers with other-than-honorable discharges for minor misconduct.
The latest study was ordered this month by the Army after Bennet, D-Denver, and other senators demanded an investigation after new media reports including a Gazette investigation that revealed the services increasingly use disciplinary measures to downsize. "We are still hearing a lot of concerns about mental health discharge issues," Bennet told The Gazette this month.
Bennet said he expects the reviews to show whether Army leaders purposefully kick out mentally ill soldiers with benefit-denying discharges.
"That is to give us the data we need to really understand what's going on," he said.
Bennet said both studies are moving forward, but results could be months away.
"Things move at a glacial pace and we're going to have to stay on it and get it done," he said.
Bennet said he will keep pushing the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2017 to reduce wait times Colorado Springs veterans face to get health care. The senator offered an amendment to increase funding for VA health care staff that was shot down this month as Congress made final adjustments to its 2016 budget.
Even without that extra cash, VA can't explain waiting times in Colorado Springs -- where according to estimates from the agency, 32 percent of veterans waited more than a month for appointments, Bennet said.
"We have been pushing those guys to shorten those wait times in Colorado Springs," he said. "Our view is there's no justification for those long waits."
Another item on Bennet's agency is the troubled VA hospital project in Aurora. The $1.7 billion hospital has been at the center of controversy with a price tag that tripled amid mismanagement that led to the removal of several officials.
Bennet said the project should stay on track, and reforms approved by Congress should prevent similar VA construction woes. Among the reforms is a stipulation that VA bring in another agency to oversee large construction work.
"It's more belt and suspenders to make sure we don't wind up in the situation we're in," Bennet said.