Bennet’s Bill to Investigate Potential Connection Between Military Mental Health Issues, Discharges Headed to President’s Desk

Bill instructs GAO to explore some less than honorable discharges

Washington DC - Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet's bill to learn more about mental health issues in the military and their connection to certain types of discharges will head to the President's desk as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2014, which was passed by the Senate Friday.

"We have heard from veterans in Colorado who believe that some service members are receiving less than honorable discharges for behavior that could be related to mental trauma from combat," Bennet said. "Clearly, we can't have a system that punishes service members for injuries sustained in service and this bill will help us understand whether this is happening and what we need to do to change it"

Bennet's bill stems from concerns brought to him by Colorado veterans, including some members of his Veterans Working Group, who believe some service members may be receiving less than Honorable discharges due to behavior related to mental trauma, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Frequently, a less than Honorable discharge can result in a loss of some veterans benefits for the service member.

Bennet's bill requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to explore whether service members are being discharged for conduct related to PTSD or other mental health issues. The report would seek information about protocols, training, counseling, and treatments that are in place.

The bill instructs GAO to conduct an inquiry surrounding questions in four categories:

  • Assessment Process: The GAO will report back on how each branch of the military is considering the effects of mental and physical trauma related to PTSD and other behavioral health issues for service members who are being considered for discharge due to misconduct. The investigation will also look into how the Department of Defense is monitoring compliance with these assessment processes. 
  • Training: The inquiry will seek information on training available to staff, including commanders, junior officers, and noncommissioned officers, on the symptoms of mental and physical trauma in service members and how to identify them. 
  • Treatment: The bill requests data on whether and how often service members discharged for misconduct receive treatment for mental or physical trauma related to PTSD or other behavioral health issues. It also seeks data on how many of these service members receive discharges that disqualify them from receiving VA health care or disability benefits.
  • Counseling as Related to Benefits: Finally, the GAO will seek information on whether or not service members are counseled on the loss of VA health care and disability benefits prior to accepting a Chapter 10 discharge instead of a trial by court martial.

Bennet's bill follows his panel on veterans suicide, which he created to take a comprehensive look at mental health issues affecting veterans. The panel detailed eleven recommendations to prevent veterans suicide and specifically called for continued work to make sure our country is dedicating the resources we need to fully understand PTSD, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and other mental health injuries. On the issue of service members who were less than Honorably discharged, the panel acknowledged an inability to reach consensus and a need for more information.

This suicide panel was formed in response to a recommendation from Senator Bennet's Veterans Working Group and a report Bennet commissioned in 2011 on how to better serve veterans and military families. The report included recommendations on ways to make Colorado the best state for service members, veterans, and their families to live and work. Among its recommendations was a greater focus on mental health issues.

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