Veterans study says thousands wrongfully discharged for personality disorders

By Erik Slavin

Stars and Stripes
Published: March 26, 2012

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Defense Department violated regulations by discharging thousands of servicemembers under the pretense of personality disorders during the past decade, according to a study by Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans Services Clinic at Yale Law School.

The study data — obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests — reinforces previous smaller studies from the General Accountability Office and supports claims by others that the military diagnosed combat veterans with personality disorders to avoid paying retirement benefits to servicemembers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

While PTSD constitutes a medical disability, personality-related diagnoses are considered pre-existing conditions by the Defense Department.

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The data showed that 31,000 servicemembers were discharged from 2001 to 2010 because of personality disorders, a group of disorders  in which a person’s behaviors and thoughts differ from their culture’s expectations, causing work and relationship problems.

The Army alone discharged 734 soldiers for personality disorders in 2002, but that number steadily climbed to 1,078 by 2007, according to the report, which was released last week.

In 2007, a series of articles in The Nation and later from other media led to congressional hearings and tighter regulations.

Subsequently, a 2010 GAO study of discharges from 2008 and 2009 found that the Defense Department was still not fully complying with those regulations, although data obtained by Vietnam Veterans of America for 2010 did show a substantial increase in compliance. In 2010, the Army discharged only 17 soldiers for personality disorders and complied with a series of notifications and diagnosis requirements in each case, according to the report.

The Navy discharged 165 sailors in 2012, down from 1,606 sailors in 2002, though it failed to notify the discharged sailors that their diagnosis did not qualify as a disability in 52 percent of cases. Compliance generally improved in both the Air Force and Marine Corps as their personality disorder diagnoses plummeted, the report stated.

The military has yet to address how, or if, it will deal with those who were wrongly discharged in the past 10 years, the report noted.

“Although the number of PD discharges appears to be declining, the military has failed to take meaningful action to review and correct the wrongful (discharges),” it said.

Eileen Lainez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, told the New Haven (Conn.) Register last week that she could not comment on the report because she had not reviewed it, but said the department periodically assesses its policies on discharges.

“We encourage all separating service members who believe their discharges were incorrectly characterized or processed to request adjudication through their respective military department’s Discharge Review Board and Board for Correction of Military Records,” Lainez wrote in an email, according to the Register.

For a servicemember to be discharged because of a personality disorder, a psychiatrist or a psychologist with a doctorate must conclude that “the disorder is so severe that the member’s ability to function effectively in the military environment is significantly impaired,” according to Defense Department regulation.

In January, the Army announced it would review the actions of Madigan Army Medical Center officials that reversed diagnoses of more than 14 soldiers originally found to have PTSD. The medical center reversed more than 40 percent of PTSD diagnoses for servicemembers under consideration for medical retirement since 2007, according to information released by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., last week.

Col. Dallas Homas, commander of Madigan’s medical services at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., was temporarily relieved in February.

In November, an Army ombudsman reported in a memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times that a Madigan physician warned his colleagues that PTSD diagnoses could cost up to $1.5 million over soldiers’ lifetimes.

The physician stated that “at the rate we are going the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs will be broke” because of PTSD treatment, according to the ombudsman.

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