Michigan Sen. Gary Peters urges fair treatment for all soldiers

Peters Urges Defense Secretary Carter to Update Administrative Separation Policy Across all Military Services

Policy Would Ensure that All Servicemembers – Including Sexual Assault Survivors and Those Suffering from PTSD, TBI and Mental Health Conditions – Receive Fair Treatment

U.S. Senator Gary Peters (MI) today joined a bipartisan group of eight Senators in sending a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter urging the Department of Defense (DOD) to issue a consistent policy across all military services regarding the consideration of diagnosed mental health conditions when administratively separating servicemembers.

The policy would allow mental health conditions brought on by trauma incurred during service to take precedence over misconduct when a servicemember is being involuntarily separated, and would allow for their referral for evaluation for a medical discharge.

“Servicemembers who are involuntarily separated have a higher rate of suicide, are more likely to become homeless, and can face employment discrimination for their adverse discharge,” the Senators wrote in the letter. “Clear guidance will ensure that all servicemembers who are impacted by combat or military sexual assault-related trauma receive fair consideration of their medical conditions prior to their separation from the military and will ensure that fair, consistent and transparent standards are applied across the services.”

The current military discharge policy for misconduct does not adequately weigh behavior that may have resulted from a mental health condition. Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) may exhibit irregular behavior, have difficulty performing at work, or battle substance abuse.

In May 2015, the DOD Inspector General published a report that found sexual assault survivors who engage in trauma-related misconduct, such as taking unauthorized leave to flee their perpetrator, are at higher risk of being involuntarily discharged under less than honorable conditions.

These disciplinary infractions can often be mischaracterized as misconduct rather than symptoms of a mental health condition.

The Navy updated its administrative separation policy in June to require that precedence be given to the medical conditions that may have contributed to the misconduct when involuntarily separating servicemembers.

This change will ensure veterans are able to receive the benefits they have earned. The letter asks Secretary Carter to extend this policy to all of the military services.

The letter was also signed by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Al Franken (D-MN).

Peters recently led seven of his colleagues in a letter to Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urging inclusion of a modified version of his Fairness for Veterans legislation to help veterans who may have been erroneously discharged from the military in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) conference report.

The provision, which was included in the Senate-passed legislation, would give liberal consideration to veterans petitioning to upgrade a less than honorable discharge due to behavior resulting from mental traumas such as PTSD or TBI related to their military service or military sexual trauma.


The full text of the letter is copied below:

September 8, 2016

The Honorable Ashton Carter

Secretary of Defense

U.S. Department of Defense

1400 Defense Pentagon

Washington, DC 20301-1000

 

Dear Secretary Carter:

We write to bring your attention to inequities in how the military services consider diagnosed mental health conditions when administratively separating service members.

A recent Department of Defense Inspector General report revealed that nearly a quarter of sexual assault survivors who were separated from service after reporting an assault were separated for misconduct, as opposed to eight percent of the general population. Too often, commanders administratively separate survivors for minor disciplinary infractions, in some cases despite the fact they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition resulting from trauma.

Sexual assault survivors who engage in misconduct in response to trauma, such as taking unauthorized leave to flee their perpetrators, are at a higher risk of being involuntarily discharged under other than honorable conditions. The problem, however, extends to combat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), who may also exhibit irregular behavior, difficulty performing at work, or battle substance abuse. Their chain of command may not understand that these disciplinary infractions can be symptoms of mental health conditions.

The current military discharge policy for misconduct does not adequately weigh behavior that may have resulted from mental health conditions. As a result, many service members with mental health conditions related to their military service can face an involuntary discharge under less than fully honorable conditions, which can be emotionally and financially devastating and prevent them from receiving the benefits and medical care that they need to heal.

Service members who are involuntarily separated have a higher rate of suicide, are more likely to become homeless, and can face employment discrimination for their adverse discharge. Even an involuntary honorable discharge on the grounds of a personality disorder may mean that a victim is ineligible for reenlistment and transitional benefits. Once an adverse characterization is adjudged, it can be an extremely difficult process to upgrade it through the military correction board process.

Certainly, important reforms have been enacted in the last several years so that fewer service members receive wrongful discharges and are forced to petition the boards for redress. However, more can be done to ensure service members are not unfairly discharged as a result of mental health conditions brought on by trauma incurred during service, whether from combat, sexual assault, or both.

We applaud Navy Secretary Mabus’s recent actions updating the service’s administrative separation policy to better protect Sailors and Marines with diagnosed mental health conditions. This historic change will allow any mitigating medical condition to take precedence over misconduct when a service member is being involuntarily separated and will allow for his or her referral for evaluation for a medical discharge.

We urge you to issue similar discharge guidance and instructions across the Armed Forces that indicates that diagnosed mental health conditions should take precedence over minor misconduct when a service member is being administratively separated. Clear guidance will ensure that all service members who are impacted by combat or military sexual assault-related trauma receive fair consideration of their medical conditions prior to their separation from the military and will ensure that fair, consistent and transparent standards are being applied across the services.

Thank you for your attention to this request. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,
Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

Chuck Grassley
United States Senator

Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senator

Susan Collins
United States Senator

Amy Klobuchar
United States Senator

Tammy Baldwin
United States Senator

Ed Markey
United States Senator

Al Franken
United States Senator

Gary Peters
United States Senator

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