Despite commitments by the VA, Congress and White House to address veteran suicide, the VA specifically denies life-saving services to those who are most at-risk—veterans with a military discharge under less than honorable conditions. A recent study found that the suicide rate is more than double among this group of former servicemembers. Veteran suicide will remain an epidemic unless we finally provide these veterans with all the mental health care at our disposal. The VA is holding back in this fight and it must stop.
VA officials falsely claim that their hands are tied by Congress. It’s true that Congress said some servicemembers may have been so dishonorable that they should not be eligible for veteran services. But the VA is authorized to decide who should be excluded, based on rules it wrote. The VA excludes the majority of these veterans from receiving full mental health care. For post-9/11 vets, the VA has only evaluated 10% of these cases and it turned away 65% of the ones they did evaluate. This means that 136,000 people who signed up to serve our country, some of whom deployed to combat zones and sustained life-long disabilities while serving, are being denied VA medical care. They are among those men and women who are most in need of the care.
I served the in the U.S. Army and deployed to Afghanistan. When I returned home, I became an attorney at a nonprofit that helps veterans access the care they need. A lot of the people I work with have less than honorable discharges or “bad paper.” I know firsthand that PTSD and service-related mental health conditions are often the reason for the bad paper discharge in the first place. One infantryman I work with saw intense combat in the First Gulf War, attempted suicide while still in service, and then received bad paper when he left to seek care and support from his family. He was denied VA medical care and then spent a decade living on the streets, with a series of suicide attempts and psychiatric hospitalizations on his record. The misconduct that led to the discharge was a symptom of his PTSD, and now the VA is using that misconduct as a reason to deny him care for that very condition. This isn’t right.
My experience is that many people who had developed mental health conditions in service received bad paper discharges, and research backs this up. A 2005 study showed that Marines who deployed to combat and who received a PTSD diagnosis were 11 times more likely to receive a bad discharge. And the 2010 Army policy document on suicide prevention advises commanders to respond to at-risk behavior with stricter discipline, including separation from the service. The large majority of those people will probably never be recognized by the VA as veterans, and never receive extended veteran benefits.
The VA can fix this problem. The VA can presume that the veteran’s service was honorable if a mental health condition arose during military service which would make them eligible for VA benefits. Instead of forcing these veterans to wait months while they evaluate their case, they have the authority to grant them tentative access to VA care and services. These are easy fixes and the VA does not need any special authority to make these changes.
If the VA refuses to make these changes on its own, Congress should mandate it. Something happened that made these servicemembers unable to continue serving in the military. But they signed up and they served, at a time when most of us did not do so, and there is no reason that we should not serve them now.
Bradford Adams is a staff attorney at Swords to Plowshares. He served in the U.S. Army and in Afghanistan as a Civil Affairs Officer from 2002 to 2003. After earning his BA in International Relations and Affairs at John Hopkins University, he attended Harvard Law School for his Doctor of Law (JD).