Column: Fighting for our veterans
WASHINGTON -- Army Sergeant Chuck Luther re-enlisted in the military following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2011. After his re-enlistment, Sgt. Luther was sent to Iraq on a tour of duty. On a reconnaissance scout mission to Iraq's Sunni Triangle, a mortar shell exploded in his face, knocking him to the ground and leaving him with persistent headaches and periodic blindness.
While recovering from his injuries, Sgt. Luther was accused of faking symptoms to avoid combat, confined for a month and then diagnosed with a "preexisting personality disorder" despite previously being cleared for duty in eight different mental health screenings prior to his combat injuries. Due to the diagnosis he was discharged from the service, making it difficult to get the care he needed for his injuries.
Unfortunately, Sgt. Luther's story is not unique. In fact, according to a report by the Yale University Veterans Legal Services Clinic, as many as 31,000 service members discharged for personality and adjustment disorders between 2001 and 2010 may have been improperly diagnosed. These improper diagnoses are given to veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including cases of sexual assault.
Most troubling, when a service member like Sgt. Luther is discharged for having one of these disorders, the implication is that his or her condition is a life-long one that is unrelated to military service. This makes him or her ineligible for the whole host of benefits -- everything from health care services to military retirement.
That's why I recently introduced the Service Members Mental Health Review Act with Sen. John Tester of Montana and Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz in the House. This legislation would make critical changes to current law that would help correct errors and prevent future misdiagnoses to ensure no veteran is wrongfully discharged or denied benefits.
The bill focuses on improving the process for contesting errors in mental health records. In the current system, the onus of righting a mistake is placed solely on the veteran. My bill would allow medical information from the Veterans Administration (VA) or Department of Defense to be used as evidence that would be presented before the Physical Disability Board of Review.
It also requires an additional, independent psychologist and psychiatrist to be included on the board. The Defense Department would also have to inform veterans of their right to a review of their case as well as seek legal counsel.
Most importantly, this legislation has the support from the organizations that are on the side of our veterans. Groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Wounded Warrior Project and the Military Officers Association of America have recognized this problem and are stepping forward to give their support.
We need to get this done, because when our veterans signed up to serve, there wasn't a waiting line, and there shouldn't be a waiting line here in the United States when they return. Not for a job, a home, or an education and certainly not for the health care they've earned.
Heroes like Army Sgt. Luther deserve better. On this Memorial Day, let us renew our promise to our veterans that we will fight for them just as hard as they have fought for us and ensure they have the support and care they need and deserve.