Bennet's GAO Bill Included in NDAA

Bill instructs GAO to explore military discharges

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 was included yesterday in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2014, which was passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Some members of our Colorado veterans community have told us about service members who are losing their benefits because of behavior related to mental health issues,” Bennet said. “However, we don’t currently have the hard facts to determine the extent of these discharges or the appropriate path forward. This GAO report will help us learn more about the issue and provide a foundation for potential policy changes.”

“We’re grateful to Senator Mark Udall, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, for working so hard to help get this bill included in the NDAA,” Bennet added.

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 requests 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.

Background work: 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 focuse on mental health issues.