Two months after attempting suicide and receiving a less than honorable discharge from the Army, Kristofer Goldsmith received a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Despite confirmation of his mental ailment, the Washington Post reports that the war photographer couldn’t receive student aid through the post-9/11 G.I. bill because of his improper removal. But the tide may be changing for Goldsmith and countless other veterans suffering from PTSD seeking reclassification of their dismissal.
A defense spending bill that Congress sent to President Obama last week includes a mandate requiring that servicemen and women discharge have their cases reviewed by at least one mental health professional. Veterans with mental illnesses found to have been improperly discharged without their benefits would also have their records corrected under this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.
“We must ensure that the men and women of our military who risk their lives to protect our country receive the care they earned,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in a statement on Friday.
Gillibrand, along with Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), separately sponsored the provision as part of an effort to ensure that the government doesn’t deny veterans their benefits — including medical care, disability compensation, and student aid. “Too many of our service members have been discharged as a result of an undiagnosed or improperly diagnosed mental health condition,” said Gillibrand.
According to a 2010 report, the U.S. Army discharged nearly 1,000 service members within a three-year span for what they described as a “personality disorder.” While personality disorders and PTSD share similarities, army officials consider the former to be a preexisting condition. As a result, discharged servicemen and women who receive such a diagnosis can’t collect their benefits.
In September, the federal government granted benefits to thousands of Vietnam-era veterans who had their PTSD — which may have contributed to the actions that caused their dishonorable discharge — misdiagnosed. The announcement culminated months of litigation by advocacy group Vietnam Vets for America, which filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that more than 80,000 of 250,000 discharged veterans could prove that they suffered from PTSD.
That lawsuit took place amid controversy stemming from a CNN investigation that highlighted the Veteran Health Administration’s struggles to keep up with a growing caseload of veterans suffering from PTSD, brain injuries, limb amputations, and diabetes since the Bush administration. Even as new information surfaced, many review boards have been reluctant to upgrade discharges in decades-old cases, even when veterans present new information that verifies that PTSD caused their misconduct.
The Department of Veteran Affairs’ lethargic response in turn has affected discharged military personnel who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, many of whom face financial and emotional burden because of extremely punitive sanctions informed by misdiagnoses of their mental health. According to a survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) earlier this year, more than 60 percent of veterans had been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
When left untreated, PTSD can cause high alertness and increase adrenaline in the veterans, even in the most mundane situations. Experts say that feelings of self-guilt that may have been suppressed on the battlefield can explode into feelings of anger and rage that can force a person to isolate themselves from others. Such pain can eventually manifest into thoughts of suicide, as experienced by 30 percent of respondents in the IAVA survey.
“As alarming new information is released regarding suicide among service members and veterans, we have reached a point where we need to send up a flare and author real solutions,” Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA’s founder and CEO, told lawmakers in March during a Joint House and Senate Veterans Affairs committee hearing. “A concerted national effort is needed to combat suicide and reverse the trend of high suicide rates among service members and veterans, an issue that has been inadequately addressed for far too long.”
With Congress’ latest move, Rieckhoff’s hopes may come to fruition. Goldsmith, who unsuccessfully applied twice to have his status upgraded to honorable discharge, called the provision a step in the right direction in bridging the gap in mental health care for veterans, especially those who leave the battlefield because of PTSD.
“Justice is finally within reach for the countless veterans who, like me, have been inappropriately discharged from the military due to improperly or undiagnosed service-related illnesses and injuries,” Goldsmith said in a statement.