December 15, 2010

Vet Groups Want Answers To ‘Wrongful’ Discharges

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While the number of veterans discharged for “personality disorder” has dropped dramatically in the last two years, the numbers of service members diagnosed with adjustment disorder has climbed, leading veterans’ groups to charge Wednesday that the military may be playing a shell game to deny benefits to combat veterans.

The allegation is connected to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, on behalf of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and VVA Chapter 120 in Hartford. The lawsuit charges that nearly 26,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been wrongly classified as suffering from personality disorder, a diagnosis that renders a service member ineligible to receive full military benefits.

The lawsuit seeks to compel the Defense Department (DoD) to comply with Freedom of Information requests for records related to discharges for personality disorder and adjustment disorder. The VVA filed requests for such records in October, but has not received them.

“DoD’s personality disorder designation prevents thousands of wounded veterans from accessing service-connected disability compensation or health care,” said VVA National President John Rowan.  The VVA says it wants the records in order to convince Congress to mandate a systemic review of all 26,000 discharges – a review the group said that combat veterans deserve.

Personality disorder is a disability that usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood and can present with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  Veterans’ advocates have charged for years that the military was diagnosing pre-existing personality disorder instead of PTSD or other combat-related conditions, in order to reduce the cost of health care and disability compensation.

After hearings before the Veterans Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Defense Department in 2008 strengthened the requirements for diagnosing personality disorder. That change led to a dramatic drop in the incidence of the diagnosis: After discharging an average of 3,750 troops a year for personality disorder between 2001 and 2007, DoD discharged only 960 service members in 2008, 1,426 in 2009, and 650 to date in 2010, the VVA says. Meanwhile, diagnoses of PTSD and traumatic brain injury have increased.

Of special concern to the veterans’ groups is that while personality disorder discharges have fallen off, adjustment disorder discharges have climbed—from 1,453 in 2006, to 3,844 in 2009. That trend suggests that the military is continuing to misdiagnose service members under a new label, VVA officials said.

“It seems like they’re playing a shell game,” said Sgt. Chuck Luther, one of the thousands of veterans who was discharged from the Army with a personality disorder diagnosis.  Luther, of Texas, has been locked in a battle with the DoD and the VA to prove that his wounds are war-related and worthy of disability and medical benefits.

He said that throughout his time in the Army, he had been cleared as fit for duty multiple times. “It’s just out-and-out wrong,” he said of his discharge.

The Defense Department has repeatedly asserted that no service members have been wrongly discharged, and that the pre-2008 discharges were not indicative of systematic or widespread misdiagnoses.

“If DoD truly believes that all personality disorder discharges were lawful, why does it refuse to provide records responsive to VVA’s Freedom of Information Act request?” asked Melissa Ader, a law student intern in the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, acting as counsel in the case.  “We hope that this lawsuit will allow the public to assess for itself whether DoD has treated veterans unjustly.”

For more information on the lawsuit read here

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