NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CN) - The Pentagon has wrongfully discharged nearly 26,000 service members since 2001 "on the basis of so-called 'personality disorder'" - rather than for post-traumatic stress or other service-connected disabilities - to save itself $12.5 billion in health-care costs, the Vietnam Veterans of America claims in a federal FOIA complaint. The Vietnam Veterans say discharges for faultily diagnosed "personality disorder" increased drastically after the Pentagon began calling up veterans after the 9/11 attacks.
"Over the past nine years, Defendant Department of Defense ('DoD') and its components and subcomponent services have systematically and wrongfully discharged nearly 26,000 service members who have service-related disabilities on the basis of so called 'personality disorder,'" the complaint states. "Veterans who responded courageously to the government's call to action after September 11, 2001 by serving in the Armed Forced have returned home only to find that DoD's personality disorder designation prevents them from accessing service-connected disability benefits and veterans health care. By carelessly disregarding the personality disorder regulations which were promulgated for the benefit of service members, DoD has broken the United States' longstanding promise to provide for its veterans."
"The military classifies PD as a condition pre-existing military service," the complaint states. "Veterans discharged from the military on the basis of a PD diagnosis are not entitled to service-connected disability benefits or VA care.
"By its own admission, DoD dismissed 25,656 service members on the basis of PD between fiscal years 2001 and 2007; 3,372 of these discharged service members had served in combat or imminent danger zones in support of OCO [Overseas Contingency Operation]. Approximately 2,800 of the service members whom DoD had dismissed on the basis of PD had deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom.
"By discharging 22,656 service members on the basis of PD, the DoD has saved the military approximately $4.5 billion in medical care and $8 billion in disability compensation that these service members would have received had they been discharged on the basis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder ('PTSD') or another service-connected disability."
The complaint adds: "DoD has admitted that its doctors failed to interview anyone but the service members before making most of the 22,656 PD diagnoses that led to discharge." This despite the fact that "Prior to 2008, DoD regulations in PD discharges required that service members get formal counseling regarding the reason for their impending discharge and receive a PD diagnosis from a psychiatrist or psychologist stating that the PD interfered with their ability to function in the military.
"DoD's compliance with counseling requirement was as low as 40% between 2001 and 2007, as was compliance with diagnosis requirement. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office ('GAO') found that 'DoD does not have reasonable assurance that its key personality disorder separation requirements have been followed' after reviewing PD discharges occurring between 2001 and 2007."
The complaint cites two articles The Nation published in 2007, "exposing DoD's exploitation of wounded service members. The articles revealed that DoD had dramatically increased the number of PD discharges between 2001 and 2007 in order to rein in what could reach hundreds of millions of dollars in disability compensation for veterans discharged honorably and diagnosed with PTSD."
The Vietnam Veterans of America says that many service members who had been discharged for personality disorder actually suffered from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. The Vietnam Veterans say "that DoD had fabricated the overwhelming majority of PD discharges so that the VA would not have to provide disabled veterans with the health care and service-connected disability compensation that they had earned."
The complaint continues: "DoD's mistreatment of service members prompted Congress to hold a hearing investigating PD discharges in July 2007.
"DoD's exploitation of service members caused Congress to pass and President Bush to sign a January 2008 bill requiring that DoD submit a report on PD discharges. The bill did not require DoD to submit records verifying the claims made in the report.
"In June 2008, DoD released an 11-page report in which it admitted that DoD leadership 'shares Congress' concern regarding the use of PD as the basis for administratively separating Service members who deployed in support of GWOT (the Global War on Terror) and who may have been more appropriately processed for disability.' However, DoD did not release records verifying or expanding on the claims made in the report."
The Pentagon refused to release data on the National Guard's and Coast Guard's use of PD discharges, and those service branches have refused to release the information as well.
"In August 2008, VVA and other advocates' criticism of DoD's exploitation of service members prompted DoD to change its PD discharge policy to require diagnosis by a psychiatrist or Ph.D.-level psychologist."
But, the Vietnam Veterans say, "Three of the four military services were not in compliance with any of DoD's more rigorous separation requirements in fiscal year 2008.
"In September 2010, GAO determined that 'the military services have not demonstrated full compliance with DoD's PD separation requirements.'
"DoD's decision to continue inappropriately discharging service members on the basis of PD from 2008 through the present time has caused an unknown number of veterans who served courageously in the armed forced to be denied service-connected disability benefits and VA health care."
The complaint adds: "After the PD discharge scandal of 2007-2008, DoD discharged significantly fewer service members for PD" and "significantly more service members for PTSD." But the Pentagon also discharged more people for "other designated physical or mental conditions not amounting to disability," including adjustment and readjustment disorder.
"VVA has argued that DoD is discharging more service members on the basis of adjustment or readjustment disorder so as to cut the costs increased when DoD was forced to discharge fewer services members on basis of PD."
The Vietnam Veterans of America and its Connecticut Greater Hartford Chapter 120 demand documents on personality-disorder discharges. They say their FOIA requests have been rebuffed or ignored by the Pentagon, the Army, Navy, Marines, National Guard Bureau, Army National Guard, Coast Guard, and the Veterans Benefit Administration.
The Vietnam Veterans are represented by Michael Wishnie with the Jerome Frank Legal Services Organization of New Haven.