More than half of all service members discharged from the military for misconduct also had an existing brain injury or mental health condition, according to a new report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
This is particularly concerning because a misconduct discharge can make former service members potentially ineligible to receive health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs which may be essential in treating their injury or mental illness.
According to the report from the independent government watchdog agency, 57,141 of the 91,764 service members who were separated or discharged for misconduct between 2011 and 2015 had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a traumatic brain injury, or another clinical mental health issue at least two years before their discharge.
The agency came to this conclusion using data collected from the Department of Defense’s Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), the DOD’s Defense Health Agency (DHA), and the Veterans Benefits Administration. The report also found that 16 percent of service members discharged for misconduct had been diagnosed with either TBI or PTSD, while other mental health issues such as adjustment disorders or substance abuse accounting for the remaining 46 percent.
Only 38 percent of those discharged or separated due to misconduct were free of any injury or mental diagnosis.
The report found that branches of the military were largely failing to follow policies set in place by the Pentagon regarding health examinations prior to discharging a service member.
Under DOD protocol, troops are required to undergo a medical screening to assess whether PTSD or TBI were mitigating factors in the situation leading to their misconduct charges. The policies also require the military to follow specific training and counseling policies before discharging a service member.
However, the report found the Navy and Air Force were not adhering to these DOD policies. The Army and Marine Corps may also be failing to follow their own guidelines regarding PTSD and TBI, as interviews conducted by the GAO suggest officers may not be properly trained to spot TBI symptoms. The Army and Marine Corps also failed to provide service members with proper counseling or and failing to inform troops about their potential ineligibility for VA benefits and services.
Lastly, the report found that while the Army and Marine Corps do collect data on screenings, training, and counseling, they do not use this data to ensure they are adhering to policies.
“As a result of policy inconsistencies and limited monitoring, DOD has little assurance that certain service members diagnosed with PTSD or TBI receive the required screening and counseling prior to being separated for misconduct and that all service members, including officers, have been trained on how to identify symptoms of mild TBI in the deployed setting,” the study said.
“Unless the policy inconsistencies are resolved and routine monitoring is undertaken to ensure adherence, the risk increases that service members may be inappropriately separated for misconduct without adequate consideration of these conditions’ effects on behavior, separation characterization, or eligibility for VA benefits and services,” the study continued.
Since the release of the report, the acting assistant defense secretary for health affairs criticized the study, saying the DOD takes issue with the “accuracy and clarity” of the findings. Smith went on to say the numbers used in the GAO report were inflated because some service members were diagnosed with more than one condition. The GAO disputed this, but has rewritten some parts to address any concerns raised by the Pentagon.
Ultimately, the findings raise questions about how the military handles TBI, PTSD, and other conditions that can affect behavioral control. By discharging them and putting these service members at risk of losing benefits, the military puts them at risk for worse outcomes and more severe long-term health issues.
“These conditions can adversely affect service members’ moods, thoughts and behavior, they may lead to disciplinary infractions and subsequent separations for misconduct from the military,” the GAO wrote.