Senators Want to Help Troops with PTSD Appeal Bad Discharges

Many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Russell Midori/DVIDS

A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday sought to revive a proposal to make it easier for veterans to upgrade "bad paper" discharges wrongly handed down for behavior resulting from PTSD or sexual trauma.

The group of eight lawmakers led by Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat and former lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, urged inclusion of the proposal before the House-Senate conference committee that is struggling to pass the National Defense Authorization Act for the Defense Department's 2017 budget.

In a letter to Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rhode Island's Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the panel, the Senate group said the proposed amendment to the NDAA "is a necessary step forward to ensure that certain veterans suffering from mental traumas such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) have access to earned benefits.

"The need for this liberal consideration standard remains all too clear as the number of returning Post-9/11 veterans continues to increase," the letter said. The letter cited an estimate suggesting that discharges for misconduct are 11 times more likely after a PTSD diagnosis.

The proposed amendment would also apply to former service members who were diagnosed with personality disorders and discharged from the military as a result of trauma from sexual assaults.

The Senate had previously passed the proposed amendment, but it was not included in the House version of the bill that is now before the conference committee.

In addition to Peters, the senators signing the letter were Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Barbara Boxer of California, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Republicans Steve Daines of Montana, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

The letter said, "A less than honorable discharge, or bad paper discharge, is often given for instances of minor misconduct such as being late to formation and missing appointments -- behavior often seen in those suffering from PTSD, TBI, and other trauma-related conditions."

Discharges less than honorable, such as general discharges or bad-conduct discharges, make service members ineligible for benefits such as GI Bill education benefits and Veterans Affairs home loans.

The proposed amendment has broad support from veterans service organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and others.

In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave policy guidance to the Military Department Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records (BCM/NR) to give "liberal consideration" in examining petitions for upgrades to evidence that PTSD may have contributed to the misconduct leading to a less than honorable discharge.

In their letter, the senators said they were attempting to put into law the guidance in the Hagel memo. The letter also cited a recent investigation by the National Journal showing that about 318,000, or 13 percent of all Post-9/11 veterans, have separated with a less than honorable discharge.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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