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September 21, 2023

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Veterans’ health hurt by bureaucracy

Whatever the war, whatever the cause, military men and women who have served our country in combat are a special breed. They have done what they’ve been asked to do, and it is our duty to see they get the care they need.

In far too many instances, that is not happening. Instead, thousands of American combat veterans have been abruptly discharged from military service since 2001, many of them stripped of access to the continuing medical care and benefits to which veterans are entitled. They’ve been told that the psychological injuries from which they’re suffering are the result of that dreaded bugaboo of the insurance business – pre-existing conditions – not their combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This, to put it plainly, is wrong. Men and women who have been determined to be healthy enough to fight for our country must not be denied care because the Pentagon declares after the fact that they were unfit to serve.

The U.S. Senate took an important step this week to correct this injustice. As part of the defense-spending authorization bill it passed, the Senate included a provision that would make it harder for the military to use so-called Chapter 5-13 discharges, which originally were intended to deal with service members with personality disorders that went undetected until after they’d served in combat.

More than 22,000 men and women have been discharged under Chapter 5-13 in recent years. At least some of whom were combat veterans suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and/or head and brain injuries. Eventually, these men and women may qualify for care through the Veterans Administration – the VA does a separate evaluation – but that often means a lengthy delay before treatment begins.

Recruits who have serious personality disorders are supposed to be screened out during boot camp before being sent into combat. But Col. Bruce Crow, a psychologist in the Army Surgeon General’s office, told a congressional committee in July that the service depends on recruits to “self-report” previous mental health problems. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for an army that is under pressure to fill recruiting quotas.

The tougher discharge standards that passed the Senate also require a review by the Government Accountability Office to determine if troubled combat veterans are being misdiagnosed to force them out of the military.

The GAO review could be crucial to veterans who need continuing care. If they’re discharged under Chapter 5-13, they may not get it. They also may lose separation pay or be forced to repay part of an enlistment bonus.

The new standards resulted from admirable behind-the-scenes work by Missouri Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, a Republican, Illinois Sen. Barrack Obama, a Democrat, and eight of their colleagues.

On the other side of the Capitol, lawmakers such as Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., also have been looking into the problem; he and his House colleagues should endorse the Senate’s bipartisan solution and get this situation corrected as quickly as possible.

Using bureaucratic excuses to deny combat veterans the psychological help they need is unforgiveable. Those who have served under fire have been traumatized enough.

The Post-Dispatch is based in St. Louis, Mo.

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