Lawmakers want to avoid having troops disgracefully forced from the ranks because of behavior related to post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries, but Pentagon officials may already be on the way to fixing the problem.
Last week, a coalition of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan introduced legislation to ensure that military discharge review boards must consider troops' mental health issues, and must accept a PTSD or TBI diagnosis from a professional as an acceptable rebuttal to a dismissal.
The move could affect thousands of military discharges each year and open the door for a review of more. Army officials have confirmed that at least 22,000 combat veterans have received less-than-honorable discharges since 2009, many for minor offenses like alcohol use or lateness.
For some troops, those infractions are a sign of untreated issues like PTSD and TBI. A less-than-honorable discharge severely limits the care and support options for those veterans, leaving them with decreased medical support and an increased risk of suicide.
"Those discharges could be a death sentence for these veterans," said Kris Goldsmith, an advocate behind the legislative push.
In a statement last week, bill sponsor and Iraq War veteran Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called expanding treatment for troubled veterans a desperate need.
"In the case of veterans with severe mental health problems, access to these services may be life-saving," he said. "It is my hope that veterans with questionable, less-than-honorable discharges receive quick access to the mental health care they earned and deserve."
Defense officials appear to agree.
In a memo signed in February but released in recent days, Brad Carson, then acting principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel, expanded a 2014 decision by the department to ease the burden on veterans with PTSD and TBI seeking to upgrade unfavorable discharges.
In the past, that decision covered only a select group of Vietnam veterans. The new memo would expand that to all veterans, and waive statutes of limitations for those appeals.
Goldsmith, who was given a general discharge in 2007 after a failed suicide attempt stopped his second deployment to Iraq, praised that move but said legislative action is still needed to ensure the policy isn’t changed in future administrations.
The proposal was included in suicide prevention legislation passed by Congress last year but was removed late in legislative negotiations.
Several supporters have dubbed the new measure an extension of the goal of that bill: to provide more care to veterans and stop them from taking their own lives.
Coffman also introduced separate legislation last week to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide initial mental health assessments and urgent health care services to all veterans at risk of suicide, regardless of their discharge status.
Congressional leaders have promised a veterans omnibus bill in coming weeks, to pull together a host of veteran program reform proposals.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at