WASHINGTON — The military has been discharging troops who are suffering from combat stress instead of providing treatment, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond and several veterans advocates say.
That would mean that many who could be afflicted with mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, have left the service without official medical diagnoses and no chance for medical benefits.
"If somebody comes back with battle-related stress and invisible injuries, we owe them a tremendous amount," said Bond, a Republican. "We need to determine what their problem is, not kick them out and let them fend for themselves."
The disputed discharges are for "adjustment disorders," which can occur when a person has trouble handling a stressful event. In the military, service members who have seen combat or undergone other types of stress might be discharged as a result of sleepwalking, airsickness or severe nightmares.
The procedure bypasses the lengthier medical discharge process, but critics say that many troops are discharged erroneously and lose out on medical benefits.
After several attempts to get discharge data from the Pentagon, Bond and three Senate colleagues asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a letter last week to pry the information loose.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont signed the letter, along with Republicans Sam Brownback of Kansas and Charles Grassley of Iowa.
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the department would respond to their letter "as appropriate."
A recent study found that more than a third of the returning male Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans — and more than a quarter of the women — who sought help at the Veterans Health Administration had PTSD.
In 2007, Congress stopped the military from using pre-existing personality disorders as a trigger to remove combat-stressed troops. Pre-existing medical conditions disqualify service members from receiving benefits.
Critics said they were sham discharges because the military originally had found many of those discharged troops fit to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Personality disorder discharges plummeted after Congress stepped in, according to the Pentagon, from 1,072 in fiscal year 2006 to 64 in the first six months of this fiscal year. Adjustment disorders have more than doubled during almost the same period, however, from more than 1,400 in 2006 to more than 3,800 last year.
A military diagnosis of PTSD qualifies active-duty service members for medical retirement and lifelong compensation, as well as health care for their families and themselves.
A PTSD diagnosis by the Department of Veterans Affairs also qualifies the veteran for benefits, though not as extensive.