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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Personality Disorder Discharges Under the Gun

Last week while I was in Seattle [video up of my University Bookstore book signing], ABC News had a report by Bob Woodruff [video] that renewed interest again on the issue of combat troops being given personality disorder vs. post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses/discharges.

Woodruff [who you might recall did some ground-breaking reporting on the traumatic brain injury, or TBI, issue earlier this year] conducted a two-month investigation, interviewing 20 soldiers discharged with personality disorder for the piece.

From ABC World News:

Since his discharge in 2006, [Spc. Jonathan] Town has not only dealt with the emotional scars of war, but he has also found himself at the center of a national debate on mental health care for veterans as a crowd as diverse as singer Dave Matthews and members of Congress has questioned how 22,000 veterans were diagnosed and discharged since 2001 [the figure has jumped to 24,723 according to Stars & Stripes].

In Town's case, the discharge came two years after he was injured in an attack. In the fall of 2004, a 107 mm rocket ripped through his unit's headquarters in Ramadi, exploding two feet above Town's head and knocking him unconscious.

The rocket blast left Town with hearing loss, headaches, memory problems, anxiety and insomnia. For his wounds, he was awarded the Purple Heart. But when he returned to the states seeking treatment for those very wounds, the Army quickly discharged him, asserting his problems had been caused not by the war but by a personality disorder that predated his military career.

Interview with Dave Matthews:


Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

In the interest of education, article quoted from extensively.

Continuing:

Since 2001, more than 22,000 servicemen and women from all branches of the military have been separated under the personality disorder discharge, according to figures provided by the Department of Defense. ...

Servicemen and women undergo mental and physical screenings when they enter the military and again before they deploy. "Either the military didn't see it or they ignored it," [Russell K. Terry, founder of the veterans' advocacy organization, Iraq War Veterans Organization] said.

"We do histories and physicals on every recruit that comes in, but people may not always tell us everything," [Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a psychiatry consultant to the U.S. Army surgeon general] said.

Another soldier tells his story:

Donald Louis Schmidt of Chillicothe, Ill., was being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder after his second combat tour in Iraq. His commanders at Fort Carson later decided he was no longer mentally fit and discharged him with personality disorder. "They just slapped me with that label to get me out quicker," Schmidt said. He said superiors told him "'Everything will be great. Peachy keen.' Well, it's not."

The discharge left Schmidt ineligible for disability pay and benefits. He was also required to return more than $10,000 of his $15,000 reenlistment bonus, but he said no one explained that to him until it was too late. "If I didn't have family, I'd be living on the sidewalk," Schmidt said.

"It's not right that they would do this to him after him going to war for us," Schmidt's mother, Patrice Semtner-Myers, said. "They threw him away. They're done with him. He's no use to them anymore so they say, 'We're done. … Thanks for nothing.'"

Much of these details had been reported on previously [January coverage here and here] when the same diagnosis was given to Steven Green, the soldier charged with raping an Iraqi girl and then killing her and her family in Al Mahmudiyah. However, ABC News added some additional legs to this story when it found a whistle-blower:

On the day he was discharged in the fall, Town met with Jeff Peskoff, a civilian employee in the personnel office at Fort Carson in Colorado, and learned he owed the Army $3,000 to repay his enlistment bonus. "At some points it looked like he wanted to cry and at some point he looked like he wanted to rip my head off," Peskoff said.

Peskoff, who served 10 years in the Army, including a tour of Iraq, recently quit his job in disgust and is now speaking publicly for the first time. "If you have a combat tour and you are getting labeled as a personality disorder, there is something wrong. It's a lie," Peskoff said. "It's a quick way to get rid of that body and bring in another body. And it's a quick way to save money."

In the span of several months, Peskoff said he processed the personality disorder discharges of Schmidt, Town and hundreds of other combat veterans he believed were actually suffering physical and psychological trauma because of the war. "They [Army officials] are basically washing their hands of them," Peskoff said.

Fort Carson officials declined to talk to ABC News about this story. The Government Accountability Office is currently investigating Fort Carson as part of a larger study of mental health services for veterans.

Please continue on [scroll down] to the ABC News piece to read about the incredible stuff Dave Matthews is doing to spread the word on this issue. Town's story not only inspired him -- and in turn 23,000 of his fans -- but it affected elected officials on Capitol Hill as well:

Town's story also inspired 31 senators, including four presidential candidates, to write to Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling for an investigation into the military's use of the personality disorder discharge. "We are concerned over continuing reports from veterans' services organizations, the media and individual U.S. service personnel that personality disorder discharges have been implemented inappropriately and inconsistently," the letter said.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said, "We want to make this something that is widely understood and gain the momentum for necessary changes to the system." Just today, six senators including Bond and Barack Obama, D- Illinois, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would temporarily suspend personality disorder discharges for combat veterans until there is a comprehensive review of the current procedures.

Gates and other Defense Department officials declined to speak to ABC News, saying the issue was under review by the veteran care commission headed by Democrat Donna Shalala and Republican Bob Dole.

After all the recent attention focused on Town, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently began treating him and paying disability benefits. Matthews was asked whether his actions had helped Town. "I think the push, the publicness of the whole thing had some bearing on that, and if it did, it's great that it did. But there are still a lot of other soldiers that need to have the same attention paid on their behalf."

At home in central Illinois, Donald Schmidt is waiting.

As mentioned upstream, Stars & Stripes reported updated personality disorder discharge figures last month:

Since October 2001, the services have discharged 24,723 troops under the character and behavior disorders policy. In 2006, 3,937 servicemembers were dismissed under the policy, up about 8 percent from 2005 but just above the 3,899 servicemembers dismissed in 2002.

For anyone interested in doing some advocacy work on this issue, you may be interested in this comment left at ABC News:

Again ... I am the mother of the 2nd solider that got interviewed by ABC nightline, I am going to start an support/protest group for these soliders that are getting this phony discharge.... If you care, help me. I want the soldiers to know the American People care and are behind them 1000 percent. Don't let this go by just gasping and not doing anything.Stand up with me and do something. These soliders are feeling ashamed and embarassed and rejected. Don't let them feel betrayed. My son is Donald Schmidt, and I am one mad mother. I will fight this to my death and I need your help. Email me at semtner60@yahoo.com. We need to organize and let the government know they must represent us, the American people, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Help me get this together to show Congress and President Bush we will not settle for this treatment. Again email me at semtner60@yahoo. We must do this for our soldiers.Patrice Semtner-Myers.PS Jeff Peskoff please contact me @ semtner60@yahoo.com


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