Yesterday in the Cannon House Office Building, Room 334, it was standing room only as the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing titled “PTSD and Personality Disorders: Challenges for the VA.”
Chairman Bob Filner began the hearing by thanking reporter Joshua Kors – who testified on the first panel – for his Nation cover story exposing a horrifying injustice of soldiers returning from battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), who are instead diagnosed with a “pre-existing” Personality Disorder that results in a discharge without benefits. It is estimated that the 22,500 soldiers discharged with personality disorders over the last six years will save the military $12.5 billion in medical treatment over their lifetimes. Filner himself said a psychiatrist had told him that higher-ups had ordered the use of this diagnosis to save money.
Featured in Kors’ story, and also testifying at the hearing, was army veteran Jonathan Town. Town described to the Committee how “after a 107mm rocket exploded 3 feet above my head, leaving me unconscious,” he was treated for a severe concussion, shrapnel wounds in his neck, and bleeding from his ear. Over the next nine months he experienced severe headaches, continued bleeding from his ear, and insomnia. When he returned to the States he struggled “to adjust to loud noises, large groups of people, and forgetting what had happened to my unit and myself while we were in Iraq….”
Town said that about six weeks after his arrival at Fort Carson, Colorado he was finally able to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist told him that by accepting a Personality Disorder discharge, Town would be able to receive full benefits and his unit – which was getting ready to redeploy – would be able to get a new soldier assigned to replace him. “I told him that if this was what he thought was best for the military and my family that he could do what he needed to do,” Town said. “I never realized that everything that was said to me during that day were all lies.”
In fact, Town learned the day he left the army that the Personality Disorder was marked as “pre-existing” which meant he would not be entitled to the treatment the VA is obligated to provide for combat wounds. Adding insult – and further financial hardship – to injury, he was told he owed the Army $3000 for not fulfilling his 6 year re-enlistment.
Town, who is married with kids, said, “If it weren’t for my family taking us in and supporting us both financially and emotionally, and for new friends helping us, I don’t know where my family and I would be right now.”
Town said he spent the last nine months “trying to get assistance both medically and financially through the Veterans Administration.” He filed claims five times and received no response. After Kors’ article, the VA finally arranged an interview for Town with another psychiatrist (the VA claimed to have lost each of the five previous claim submissions). This time, the doctor was “in tears” in 25 minutes and diagnosed Town with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.
As Kors revealed in his story, during Town’s seven years in uniform he had been honored not one or two times – but twelve times. Town testified that he had been screened upon enlisting, screened before deployment, and screened two months after arriving in Iraq.
“I did not have a personality disorder before I went into the Army as they sated in my paperwork,” Town said today. “I did not suffer severe non-stop headaches. I did not have memory loss. I have post-traumatic brain injury now due to injuries from the war… I love the army. Hopefully, now, they’ll fix [this problem]. Show that the VA, the DoD, and the government does care about soldiers.”
It’s encouraging that committee member Phil Hare has introduced the Fair Mental Health Evaluation for Returning Veterans Act to suspend and review personality disorder discharges, and Senator Barack Obama has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. (Stay tuned for a future Legislation Watch post).
What is less encouraging is that the Ranking Member, Republican Congressman Steve Buyer, began this hearing by questioning whether the Committee on Veterans Affairs had jurisdiction over these matters of veterans’ health. It was even more disturbing that Buyer never looked at Town during his testimony, talked with the member to his right during it, and even seemed to chuckle at one point. When it was his turn to question the panel, Buyer decided to shoot the messenger. He berated Kors for not naming names of commanders who were pressuring doctors for the Personality Disorder diagnosis. He berated him for not naming names of the doctors who were making the diagnosis (he spoke over Kors as he offered one name – psychologist Mark Wexler at Fort Carson). He castigated the reporter for “syllogism and innuendo,” to which another panelist – veteran Paul Sullivan, Executive Director of Veterans for Common Sense – replied that it sounded like Congressmen he knew.
Kors told Buyer he wouldn’t reveal his sources – who feared for their jobs – no matter how Buyer pressured him. And Filner reminded the Committee that he himself had been tipped by a psychiatrist about pressure from commanders but that that individual wouldn’t testify for fear of retribution.
Despite Buyer’s efforts, the majority of the panel thanked Kors profusely for his diligent work. And they thanked Town for his service and bravery in stepping forward on behalf of thousands of other soldiers. It is clear that this committee, under the leadership of Filner, is determined to do right by the men and women who serve our nation and will not simply leave them to fend for themselves.
This post was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in Washington.