Navy to Weigh Mental Health Status Before Discharging Sailors, Marines

 Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus signs an administrative separation (ADSEP), June 1, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers)
Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus signs an administrative separation (ADSEP), June 1, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers)

Sailors and Marines facing administrative separation for any reason will have mental health issues taken into account when officials determine their discharge characterization and disability evaluation status under a new policy rolled out by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus this week.

The change makes the Navy the first military service to consider mental health issues when conducting administrative separations, according to a June 1 news release. It acknowledges that post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries received in combat that may contribute to troops' negative behavior or altered job performance.

Service members may face administrative separation after demonstrating patterns of misconduct, poor performance of duties or non-performance, failure to conform to weight and fitness standards, and drug use, among other reasons. The military also sometimes separates those who have been accused of serious crimes so that the civilian justice system can prosecute them.

Starting immediately, diagnosed mental health conditions will take precedence over misconduct issues when determining the conditions of a Marine or sailor's discharge, if the mental health issue is believed to have contributed to the misconduct, according to officials. These troops may be referred into the disability evaluation system, allowing them to retain key veterans' benefits.

For troops with diagnosed mental health issues facing a discharge other than honorable, according to the release, their case must first be personally reviewed by the first general or flag officer in their chain of command for a final determination. Discharge status has a significant impact on veterans' benefit eligibility: other-than-honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable discharges disqualify troops from all benefits, while a general discharge may limit eligibility for certain benefits, like the GI Bill.

Marine and Navy veterans who believe their own discharge status might have been affected by this updated review process can appeal, said Lt. j.g. Kara Yingling, a Navy spokeswoman.

"Service members who believe this change in policy may affect their separation characterization or disposition can file a petition for relief through the Board of Correction for Naval Records," Yingling told Military.com.

There is no statute of limitations for those wishing to appeal, she said.

For PTSD, TBI and other mental health conditions, an "appropriately privileged military health care provider" will be consulted to determine whether the condition contributed to the actions or conduct for which the sailor or Marine is being separated, Yingling said.

For Mabus, this is the latest in a series of significant department-specific social changes that have characterized his tenure. Last July, he increased maternity leave for sailors and Marines from six weeks to 18 -- a dramatic move that was overridden in January by a Defense Department-wide policy change that granted 12 weeks' leave to troops in every service.

"It is one of the great maxims of naval history that Sailors and Marines are the sea services' greatest advantage and most important asset. 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."

--Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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