WASHINGTON — Nearly one in four troops booted from for misconduct over a five-year period received other-than-honorable dismissals despite evidence of existing mental health conditions that may have warranted other considerations, according to a new Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday.
The findings cover nearly 92,000 service members separated for misconduct from fiscal 2011 through fiscal 2015. Investigators found that of those, more than 57,000 (about 62 percent) suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health conditions.
Despite that, almost one-quarter of that group was given other-than-honorable discharges, making them ineligible for certain health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
GAO researchers said that existing screening and counseling policies do provide protections against improper dismissals, but also criticized Air Force and Navy offices for failing to follow those policies.
The report, mandated by Congress in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, is the result of a two-year investigation and comes as VA officials work to expand health offerings to veterans ineligible for traditional services, in light of high suicide numbers among vulnerable veterans.
It also reinforces complaints by veterans advocates that military officials haven't been careful enough in pushing problem troops out of the ranks, ignoring underlying problems connected to their military service.
"This report proves exactly what we have been saying for decades: that the Defense Department throws troops into the grinder and disposes of them when they're used up," said Kristofer Goldsmith, assistant director for policy at Vietnam Veterans of America.
In response to the report, Pentagon officials said they will review their policies and better monitor screening of troops facing dismissals. But they also questioned researchers’ methods, saying they believe some of the findings’ totals were inflated due to double counting of troops.
GAO officials disagreed.
"DOD has little assurance that certain servicemembers diagnosed with PTSD or TBI receive the required screening and counseling prior to being separated for misconduct," the report states.
"Unless the policy inconsistencies are resolved and routine monitoring is undertaken to ensure adherence, the risk increases that service members may be inappropriately separated for misconduct without adequate consideration of these conditions’ effects on behavior, separation characterization, or eligibility for VA benefits and services."
Like they did with the prior White House, VVA officials have called on President Trump to establish a program to pardon veterans with so-called "bad paper" discharges to ensure they can receive needed health services.
The idea has gained support among veterans advocates in recent years but remains elusive because of the complexity of crafting a pardoning system and the potential cost of tens of thousands of new veterans entering the system.
The full GAO report is available on the agency’s web site.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.