Senators ask Obama to review personality-disorder discharges

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In the Senate, Barack Obama fought for better mental-health care for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now that he's president, some of his former colleagues want him to pick up the gauntlet once more and make sure troops are getting the benefits they deserve.

"In 2007, we were partners in the fight against the military's misuse of personality disorder discharges," four senators — Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa, Kit Bond of Missouri and Sam Brownback of Kansas — wrote in a letter this week asking Obama for a report to Congress on the current use of the discharges. "Today we urge you to renew your commitment to address this critical issue facing thousands of returning service members."

Because the military views personality disorders as a pre-existing condition, many service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems have been unable to receive health benefits. There have been questions, however, about how scrupulous the military has been in making sure that the personality disorder discharges were proper.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said the department would have no immediate comment.

Obama was the junior Democratic senator from Illinois two years ago when he and other lawmakers asked the military to examine how it treated troops who came home with mental disorders.

Failing to get a response from the Pentagon, several senators, including Bond, Obama and Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate.

They were concerned about the rising number of troops who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. Many were diagnosed with personality disorders.

"In many instances, service members discharged with 'personality disorders' are forced to repay thousands of dollars to the federal government in re-enlistment bonuses they deserved while serving in hazardous combat conditions," the senators said in their letter this week to the president.

In a report last year, the GAO studied troops who'd been discharged with personality disorders from 2001 to 2007 and found that the Pentagon often failed to meet all the necessary criteria.

Compliance, for instance, with mandatory counseling requirements ranged from 40 percent of the time to 99 percent.

The Pentagon "does not have reasonable assurance that its key personality disorder-separation requirements have been followed," the GAO concluded. It said military officials "could not explain why these separations were approved."

In the wake of the report, the military established a system to ensure that all the proper discharge steps were followed. Bond, Brownback, Lincoln and Grassley want Obama to make sure that they are.

Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit activist group, said the Defense Department hadn't done a good job of ensuring that veterans with mental health disorders were being diagnosed correctly.

"We urge them to fix the problem now and share the information with Congress and veterans groups," he said.

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